Civil service churn is a ‘core part’ of government’s long term problems, says IfG

Think tank director Bronwen Maddox warns lack of institutional memory could jeopardise levelling up agenda
Bronwen Maddox. Photo: Paul Heartfield for Civil Service World

By Jim Dunton

11 Feb 2022

Rapid turnover of officials is one of the biggest issues affecting the government’s ability to deliver policy and plan for the future, Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox has claimed.

Delivering the think tank’s annual director’s lecture, Maddox said she shared former prime minister Tony Blair’s recently-expressed view that British government was losing the capacity to identify and solve the nation’s big problems. She said expertise of civil servants and ministers was a major factor.

“There are zones of government where ministers and their civil servants have little deep knowledge of their subjects and they have little understanding of the implications of making a bad decision, and may not have immersed themselves in the experiences of people on the receiving end to know what that really means,” Maddox said. “A big part of that is because they change jobs too often.”

The IfG’s latest Whitehall Monitor report acknowledges that churn among civil servants reduced during the pandemic, with around 8.4% of officials either moving jobs or leaving the civil service between March 2020 and March 2021 – down from 10.3% the previous year. However the report said the figures demonstrated officials continued to move between jobs “too frequently”.

Maddox said the UK’s chaotic Afghan evacuation efforts last year, 2020’s shambolic handling of the use of algorithms to generate A level results, and Lord Theodore Agnew’s scathing resignation comments about attitudes to fraud in HM Treasury highlighted an expertise deficit in government.

She said there was a “state of complacency” among ministers and officials about those failings, and that civil service churn had a “pernicious” impact on departments’ ability to function well.

“The motives, generally, are pay, promotion, wanting to get on,” she said of officials’ desire to secure their next move. “The civil service is really blessed with many dedicated, ambitious people who want to do just that. But the result is that they may stay only a year or two in post and may know comparatively little about their subject – and they may suddenly be dealing with whole new aspects of it. 

“It was evident in the Afghan exit last summer, where quite a few of those dealing with petitions for help and evacuation were said to know little about the country. The big block of people who did had long before moved on.”

Maddox said a deficit of institutional memory in departments led to a failure to learn lessons about what had not worked in the past and “wasted huge amounts of time” in the process.

She said further education, regional policy and industrial policy were enduring areas that every government sought to address – with the current government’s flagship levelling-up agenda being the latest effort. Maddox said that if it lasted long enough to proceed with levelling up, “government will have to recognise why so many similar efforts have failed and draw on the ones that have succeeded” if it was to achieve anything at all.

“The core culture of the civil service is one of dedicated public service. But you also find an evasion of responsibility and an obsession with promotion that is less attractive”

When he quit as efficiency minister last month, Theodore Agnew said HM Treasury appeared “to have no knowledge or little interest in the consequences of fraud to or economy or society”. Around £10bn is currently estimated to have been lost to fraud in schemes run by HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Maddox said Agnew’s comments about a culture of indifference or ignorance as to the effect of bad decisions had struck a chord.

“It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it,” she said – citing the MoJ’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme and the DfE’s recent handling of exams algorithms.

“The core culture of the civil service is one of dedicated public service. And many people give their professional lives to that. But you also find an evasion of responsibility and an obsession with promotion that is less attractive. A disdain for politics, a lack of understanding of the pressures on politicians, and sometimes a shortage of people who can find practical answers to the problems that ministers identify.”

Ex-perm secs give their take on churn

Former Department for Exiting the European Union perm sec Dame Clare Moriarty and her ex-Department of Health counterpart Dame Una O’Brien were in the audience for Maddox’s lecture. Both recognised the churn phenomenon in a question-and-answer session afterwards, but questioned the forces at work.

Moriarty, who left government in 2020 following DExEU’s demise, said her early career moves were rarely her own choice and had usually been driven by organisational demands.

“My experience was mostly being hoiked out of things that I was stuck into and sent to do something else because that was what the department needed,” she said. “I used to describe myself as the Department of Health’s human cannonball. It was a business need. 

“I don’t remember myself thinking: ‘I’ve only done this job for a very short amount of time but I want to go on to the next level and put myself forward.’ It was much more that there was a constant supply of things that need fixing and there was probably an under-availability of people who could be hurled into things.”

Moriarty said churn was intertwined with civil service pay, which ultimately came back to politics.

“The way in which pay in the civil service is constrained is fundamentally to do with the optics of it and what people feel about how much it’s reasonable to pay,” she said. “There’s a lot of criticism of the civil service, but the way the civil service operates is fundamentally to do with being in an adversarial majoritarian political system.”

O’Brien, who was DH perm sec from 2010-2016, said that when she joined the civil service in 1990 she had experienced a distinct lack of churn. She said the result was that officials were too close to the sectors they covered, damaging their ability to provide independent analysis.

“There was a reason why things changed, but arguably it has gone too far,” she said.

However, she also made the point that  in complex areas like energy, health, or the environment, “there is a need for a certain cadre of civil servants to get experience across a range of different roles. Because without that they’re really not much use to ministers”.

O’Brien said having directors-general in DH who had started out in the department then gone on to gain experience working in the NHS and local government before returning was extremely useful.

“There is a subtlety to the churn argument that I think it is important to embrace, although I do agree there is a fundamental issue about the pay and conditions that needs to be addressed,” she said.

Maddox acknowledged earlier in the session that departments’ ability to offer attractive pay rises to candidates for internal promotion was a central issue for churn.

“It’s a trap that a large bureaucracy has constructed over the years, and is finding ways at the margin to get better at, but it is really very hard,” she said.

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