'Very worrying': Interest in the Civil Service Fast Stream plummets

As Civil Service Fast Stream applications fall dramatically for a second year, experts weigh in on the "worrying" trend
Civil Service Fast Stream Assessment Centre. Photo: Cliff Hide General News / Alamy

By Tevye Markson

12 Mar 2024

Applications to the Civil Service Fast Stream have fallen dramatically for the second year in a row, with the 2023 scheme receiving less than half the number of applicants as in 2021.

Interest in the graduation scheme has now dropped three years in a row, having reached a high of 64,697 applicants in 2020. A small drop in 2021 – to 59,603 – was followed by a significant decrease in 2022 – to 38,950. In 2023, the numbers applying has markedly fallen again – to 26,899.  

The application process for the 2023 cohort was impacted by the Boris Johnson-led government’s decision to pause the scheme in as part of plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs, which Rishi Sunak reversed when he became prime minister in October 2022.

The collapse in applications in recent years has meant it is has become easier for candidates to be successful, with the Fast Stream success rate at its highest in eight years.

Around 4% of applicants for the 2023 cohort were recommended for appointment, up from 2.8% in 2022 and 1.8% in 2021. You have to go back to 2015 to find a higher success rate: 4.6%.

Despite the fall in interest, the Civil Service Fast Stream remains ranked as the second best grade scheme in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers rankings.

Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell told CSW the figures are "very worrying".

He added: "It would be good to know if they reflect a perception that the remuneration package is less attractive or whether it reflects a feeling that ministers have been blaming civil servants unfairly. Whatever the cause, it’s important that it is tackled as soon as possible."

Has interest dwindled in particular in any individual schemes?

All schemes have received a drop in applications of at least 45% in the last three years. The science and engineering pathway experienced the biggest drop in interest, with applications by first preference plummeting by 78% from 3,119 to 674 between 2020 and 2023.

The Digital, Data and Technology stream has fared better than other schemes, but has still seen a 45% drop in applications by first preference. 

Applications to other schemes fell by the following percentages:

  • Commercial: 62%
  • Diplomatic and development (previously diplomatic service): 53%
  • Finance: 65%
  • Generalist: 48% 
  • Government Economic Service: 62%
  • Government Statistical Service: 62%
  • Government Social Research: 70%
  • Government Operational Research Service: 68%
  • HR: 67%
  • Project delivery: 60%
  • Property: 74% (since 2021, when the scheme was introduced)

Why is interest plunging?

Along with falling real-terms pay and the increase in criticism of civil servants in recent years, other reasons for the nosedive suggested by those CSW spoke to include the disruption to the scheme when it was paused in summer 2022 and the Covid pandemic.

First, let's consider the infamous pausing of the scheme under Boris Johnson's administration.

This disruption led to recruitment for the Fast Stream starting in December, rather than the usual launch in September/October, and candidates having just a 15-day window to apply, around half the usual period.

Since most most grad schemes in the UK launch in September/October, this also meant the Fast Stream missed marketing opportunities and potential recruits may have also prioritised other schemes which opened earlier. 

Jordan Urban, a researcher at the Institute for Government, told CSW it “seems highly likely” that the fall in applications from 2022 to 2023 is partly due to this disruption.

“It was reinstated without missing a year, but a process that is usually smooth from both candidates’ and HR’s perspective was anything but,” Urban added. He warned there will "also likely to be some lasting reputational damage from that episode, especially given that it seems possible that people applying for the Fast Stream with a civil service career in mind value stability in their employment more highly than the average person".

The FDA also picks this out as a key contributing factor. FDA assistant general secretary Lauren Crowley said: “The drop in Fast Stream applications was an inevitable consequence of the short-sighted ministerial decision to pause the scheme, which meant applications were open for a much shorter period.

“This highlights why decisions around workforce planning shouldn’t be made purely for political expediency. Thankfully, the government saw sense and reinstated the Fast Stream, allowing the civil service to continue to recruit the brightest and best talent to become future leaders in public service."

However, the 35% fall in candidates applying for the 2022 intake compared to the previous year was actually bigger than the reduction in interest from 2022 to 2023, the year of Fast Stream upheaval, which saw a slide of 30%. This suggests there are other significant reasons for the downturn.

What about pay?

Both the IfG and FDA union pick out pay as a key contributory factor.

“Civil service pay is getting ever more out of whack with the private sector,” Urban said. “This is likely to discourage people from applying, especially with inflation having run so high in the last couple of years.”

This point was illustrated by Sir John Kingman, chair of Legal & General and a former Treasury second permanent secretary, in a keynote speech at the IfG in December 2020.

Kingman, who also sits on the board of Barclays’s bank, touched on the stark difference between the starting salary of a Civil Service Fast Stream recruits – then £28,000 – and first-year graduate roles in management consultancies, which recruit for “very similar skills” and pay “at least £45–50k – more in the high-end firms”.  

“In investment banking, again looking for similar skills, the going rate for a first-year graduate – including bonus – is more like £80-85k,” he added. “These differentials then become yawningly wide over time, especially at the point people start thinking about houses and families. At age 30, a successful fast-track civil servant might have just made it into the senior civil service and be earning something like £75k. But in consulting, they would be earning between twice and four times that. I asked an investment bank what they would pay a reasonably successful 30 year old – they told me £450k, all-in. That’s six times our civil servant."

However, there is cause for confidence – according to the FDA – that this problem may ease in the coming years, with fast streamers having received a new two-year pay deal last year which saw some salaries increase by as much as 22.5%.

Crowley said: "This rectified historic pay issues and will ensure the Fast Stream remains competitive with other leadership development schemes in the years to come.”

Covid, criticism and desire to work for this government

On O'Donnell's second supposition that ministers' criticism of civil servants may have put potential fast streamers off, one Whitehall expert told us they were sceptical of this argument as they do not think comments ministers make in the media influences people’s career decisions.

With the general election on the horizon, another suggestion from an expert in government affairs was that young people are overwhelmingly pro-Labour and so "it makes sense that towards the end of a Conservative government that is unpopular with young people, the Fast Stream would get less applicants, because less people might want to work for the government".

They added: "Crucially this doesn’t imply that people joining the civil service are necessarily partisan – because we’re talking about numbers of applicants here, not who ends up getting accepted. The process should weed people out who can’t be impartial."

Could it also be an increasing disillusionment among young people about working in government? In a speech at the Institute for Government yesterday, former Conservative prime minister John Major warned of the consequences of falling trust in the UK's political system on getting talented people to join. He said: "I remember speaking to schools and universities many years ago and asking how many wanted to go into elected or non-elected public service, and practically 40-50%  said yes. Today, it is very nearly a nil return and that is not healthy for the administration or the politics of government."

The Cabinet Office suggested socioeconomic repurcussions from the Covid-19 pandemic as another explanation in its response to CSW asking why applications have fallen.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said:  "The Fast Stream is a world-leading graduate programme that offers significant opportunities to develop personal and professional skills. The Covid pandemic had a wider impact on recruitment drives into the workforce in the broader public and private sector across the UK."

They added: “We consider a range of metrics when assessing intakes. We have always sought to improve the scheme’s efficiency and candidate experience, in order to continue to attract high-quality and motivated graduates.”

The Cabinet Office recently embarked on its latest reform of the Fast Stream, replacing the generalist pathway with two new distinct schemes, launching regional pilots, and putting a great focus on recruiting candidates from a STEM background. The statistics confirm that the government achieved its target of 50% of new fast streamers coming from STEM backgrounds. It did this after increasing the number of STEM-background applicants from 6,338 (2022) to 11,529 (2023) despite the big fall in applications overall.

More changes are set out in the Civil Service People Plan, published in January, including implementing a new operating model and delivering a "refreshed attraction and selection approach, giving potential candidates a clearer preview of the Fast Stream offer" for the 2024 intake.

With pay improved, suspension upheaveal a distant memory, and a general election on the horizon, CSW will keenly look out for the 2024 statistics to see if interest in the Civil Service Fast Stream has revived. The 2024 scheme opened to applications in October and November 2023, with assessments now underway. The new cohort will start in September/October this year.

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Cat Little apologises for error over contract termination


Share this page