First degree churn: Tom Sasse on the cost and disruption of civil service staff turnover

Written by Tom Sasse on 16 January 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Rapid job changes across government costs money and is bad for policy. So why does it persist?

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From permanent secretaries to project directors, and from digital staff to policy advisers, civil servants in Whitehall move around at a speed that other sectors would find shocking. Several departments lose a quarter of their staff each year. Senior civil servants change roles on average every two years. And some policy teams, such as the Treasury’s welfare spending team, turn over almost entirely in under three years. A new report we’re launching this month will illustrate the scale of the problem.

Why should Whitehall care about its rapid turnover workforce model?

First, it’s an expensive and inefficient way to manage a workforce. Recruiting and training so many new staff is a drain on time and resources. And constantly changing personnel is, unsurprisingly, bad for productivity. Most of us become fully productive in our jobs after around a year and remain so for around three years. Whitehall often misses out on these peak years.

But rapid turnover really hurts the exchequer when big projects go wrong. Government has 133 major projects in its portfolio worth £423bn. In 2016, only four out of 73 projects in the portfolio since 2012 had had a single senior responsible owner in that time – which would be standard practice for such a large project in the private sector. Over half had been through three or more.


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The Common Agricultural Policy Payment Scheme (budget: £3bn) went through four SROs in three years. Universal Credit went through five in a single year. These two projects alone wasted close to £200m. No other organisation would manage such important projects in such a way.

Policy suffers – and people suffer as a result

Constant loss of expertise also damages the quality and coherence of work in a way that is harder to quantify. Put simply, when you’re new in a job you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. If your whole team is new you have a problem, particularly if your team is responsible for a vital area of government work that affects thousands of people’s lives.

This was what happened with the Treasury’s welfare team (responsible for a budget of £179bn last year). It’s also what happened with the team responsible for homelessness and rough sleeping in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government following an exodus after 2010.

Why are civil servants moving so fast?

A key reason is that since the pay cap was introduced in 2010, moving has been the only route to a promotion and a pay rise. Whitehall does not reward those who stay in post, build experience and see through projects in the way that most organisations do.

But it cuts deeper than that. The “cult of generalism” is deeply ingrained: officials feel a pressure to move through roles in several departments quickly to get to the top. A quick glance at a permanent secretary’s CV explains why.

One official we spoke to joked he had been in the department six months, “so it was time to look for something else”. After 18 months in a role, another was told that he should move on or risk being considered a “dud”. Even when a civil servant has specialist skills, is great at their job and wants to stay working within their area, they are incentivised to move. That can’t be right. 

The open internal job market adds to the pressure to move early

Every ambitious civil servant constantly checks Civil Service Jobs looking for their next step up. Rather than planning careers that work for both individual and organisation, Whitehall has left its staff to navigate an internal merry-go-round, with bad results for both.

In our report, we set out key steps towards an HR and career progression system that would allow the civil service to manage its workforce more intelligently. All managers must be able to award pay increases to top performers, permanent secretaries must be accountable for reducing harmful levels of turnover and the civil service must transform the role of HR, as other successful organisations have, to put the management of people at the core of how departments are run. 

In a landmark study of the civil service in 1968, Lord Fulton said: “It cannot make for the efficient despatch of public business when key men rarely stay in one job longer than two or three years before being moved to some other post, often in a very different area of government activity.”

Fifty years on, staff move even more quickly and the costs of an impermanent civil service have only increased. It’s high time that Whitehall updated its workforce model. 

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Tom Sasse
About the author

Tom Sasse is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government. The IfG published Moving On: the cost of high staff turnover in the civil service today.

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