'It has felt increasingly hard to get things done': Why civil servants are leaving in droves

Departmental officials are voting with their feet and seeking new opportunities outside the civil service. Tevye Markson speaks to former staff to find out why they left, their advice for others and whether they would rejoin

By Tevye Markson

25 May 2023

Civil servants are leaving their jobs at the highest rate in a decade. Some 44,000 officials departed in 2021-22, half of them resignations. 

The government says large numbers are leaving “naturally” because so many have joined since 2016, while many jobs related to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have also been phased out. Unions blame heavy workloads, low pay and ministers’ attacks in the media. 

The appetite for leaving the civil service also looks to be on its way up: 22% of officials who responded to the 2022 Civil Service People Survey said they wanted to leave within 12 months, compared to 20% in 2021. 

CSW spoke to four ex-civil servants who left in the last two years to find out why they quit, the hardest part about leaving and how their move has gone. They also shared advice on how to make the move and reflected on how outside experience can make you a better civil servant should you return.

Gareth Conyard is a former Department for Education official who worked his way up from executive officer to deputy director during 19 years in the civil service. He is now joint CEO at the charity Teacher Development Trust. 

Conyard says he was “a bit reluctant” to leave the civil service but was finding it difficult to make a difference as government became “so dysfunctional” over the past few years.

“For most of my career, I felt like I was doing things that mattered. For the last few years, it just felt increasingly hard to get things done,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t getting that sense of achievement or purpose that I’d had earlier in my career. So I decided to do something that was a bit closer to the front line and where I could feel that sense of purpose again.”

Melissa Case left the Ministry of Justice to set up her own business as a leadership coach in December 2021. She was a director at the department, where she had worked for 20 years.

“I genuinely wanted to pursue the career I’m now in because I loved the development and leadership stuff I was doing and couldn’t get enough of it in my job,” she says. “And I wanted a different quality of life. I was working all hours. It was incredibly stressful. And I couldn’t see around me or above me people who were doing it differently.”

Another factor that inspired Case’s departure was having to take eight months’ sick leave during the height of Covid after being diagnosed with cancer. “I am better now, luckily,” she says. “But during that period, it made me reassess my priorities.” 

For others, leaving the civil service was always part of the plan.

Tendai Chetse worked in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as a corporate strategist and policy adviser for two years before joining the BBC in April 2022. He says going back and forth between the civil service and other sectors is part of his career plan.

“Long term, I see myself being a civil servant and working in government, but I think there needs to be a much more healthy embracing of the idea that you can come out of government, gain experience and come back,” he says.

“That was one of the reasons why I wanted to join the BBC: because I wanted to understand what the other side of that government-sector relationship was like, and to really get a sense of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of some of the work that we do. I think that can only help you be a better civil servant, when you really actually understand where your sectors are coming from by experience, not just by theory.”

“For most of my career, I felt like I was doing things that mattered. For the last few years, it felt increasingly hard to get things done”Gareth Conyard, ex-DfE

Rishi Sunak pledged in the summer that as prime minister he would “tackle civil service groupthink and deepen departments’ understanding of business” by getting all senior civil servants to spend a year in the private sector before getting further promotion. Similarly, a Labour Party-commissioned report, published in December, said “no one should be promoted to the senior civil service unless they have worthwhile and extended experience of roles outside of Whitehall”.

Chetse says he took the plunge earlier than expected because of the hit the civil service’s reputation was taking in relation to Partygate and other ethical concerns.

“There’s no other way to put it – we all know the reputational damage that was being done to the civil service and to government, with behaviours around the pandemic,” he says. “The values that the civil service tries to uphold are really important to me. And so I didn’t want to be in a position where I was being asked to do things where I could contravene those.”

Similarly, Samuel Chivers says the government’s instability and threats to cut tens of thousands of jobs spurred his move in October.

“It was never a ‘leaving forever’ type thing,” says Chivers, who spent eight years at the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care, among others, and now works at consultancy Stonehaven.

“It was just that the opportunity presented itself, primarily because there was uncertainty around the prime minister and the government at the time, and uncertainty around jobs in the summer. The job that I was doing at the time was expiring as I was on temporary promotion. I saw it as a chance to get some experience outside of the civil service and decide what I wanted to do afterwards.”

‘Talk the walk and know your value’

Once you’ve decided you want to move, the options can be daunting and it can be difficult to know whether your skills and experience will be valued in the sectors you are interested in.

Chetse recommends talking to acquaintances who work in the private sector. “Get them to call out some of the civil service ‘isms’,” he says. “They need to be very honest. Get them to be a critical friend and say ‘that’s a real civil service thing’.” These “civil service-isms” include trying to overly structure simple things and a “tendency to act like we know it all”, Chetse says.

He also suggests seeking out help with job applications, particularly for tips on the different things to emphasise for a private sector job in contrast to a public sector role.

Chivers also thinks civil servants need to get more comfortable with networking.  “I had a few really good chats before I moved across and it just felt like a good fit for me,” he says. “But I think sometimes the idea of [networking in] the civil service is something which people shy away from slightly, particularly when it comes to networking with non-civil servants, because there is a bit of an ingrained fear of people taking advantage and of what you are and aren’t allowed to do. That’s something that I think needs to change.”

Conyard recommends speaking to a headhunter. “When I decided to leave, I really struggled to know what to go for,” he says. “I spoke to a recruiter and they said: ‘Tell me what you did this week’. That really helped me pitch what I might do outside the civil service, by looking at the skills I had developed.”

Ge also advises civil servants not to underestimate the value of the skills they have built up. “Those skills are really useful in lots of sectors,” he says. “I’ve been able to take things from the civil service, like managing programmes and projects and getting the best out of people. It’s worked more smoothly than I thought it might.”

“In a really ironic way, the short-termism in government does age you well"

Tendai Chetse, ex-DCMS

Former MoJ staffer Case agrees about the value of core civil service competencies. “You learn how to communicate well, argue well, influence, plan, problem solve and those are all skills to take out into the rest of the world,” she says. “If you’ve been there a long time there’s a bit of learning the language of outside the civil service that you have to do, but the skills themselves are absolutely transferable and deep in you.”

Chetse says the “short-termism” and “very siloed culture” of the civil service armed him with really useful skills for his switch to the BBC.

“Knowing how to work across boundaries, knowing how to pull together different groups and help them speak the same language, I think that’s been probably the most valuable,” he says.

“In a really ironic way, the short-termism in government does age you well. People in my team remark that I respond very well, or much better, to short-term, ad-hoc requests compared to other colleagues.”

Fears, farewells and excitement

Change is often scary and leaving the civil service for a new sector is no different, especially when you have spent a long time in government.

Leadership coach Case says she worried how she would manage on the outside after two decades in the civil service. “It did feel like a complete leap into the unknown,” she says. “And I didn’t take a voluntary redundancy, so I had to start earning money pretty quickly. It was both terrifying and really energising.”

The most difficult part was saying goodbye to her closest colleagues. “I had a job share and it was very difficult to tell her. And I still feel a lot of grief about leaving my team,” she says. “But it was emotional loyalty to the people I worked with, as opposed to actually having any more loyalty to the structures of the civil service.”

Conyard also feared the magnitude of change his move represented. “I’d gone from the DfE, which is a beast of about 6,000 people, to a charity with about 25 people,” he says. “That’s a completely different work environment and I didn’t know how I would cope. But I thought it was time to take the leap.”

Chivers admits to being “quite nervous” about his career change into the “unknown” world of the private sector and its “cutthroat” culture and different working hours. “Lots of people talk about it as ‘the other side’ – some people go as far as referring to it as the ‘dark side’,” he says. “Particularly when you say you’re going to work in consultancy, it’s shrouded in mystery and no one really knows exactly what they do. But it turns out that’s because lots of different consultancies do lots of different things.”
Chivers says that working a lot at the centre of government and in private offices meant he didn’t feel he ever got the “perks” of fixed working hours. “I had to be flexible to deliver my job,” he says. “That meant it wasn’t something that I was really losing.”

Unlike the others, Chetse had already worked extensively outside the civil service – in several consultancy, media and tech roles – and was much more excited than fearful. “Far too many civil servants have a level of scepticism about the sectors that they work with,” he says. “And therefore, government has a fairly defensive posture, when actually government in the 21st century has got to be more open. The only way you can be more open is to expose yourself more.
“I was looking forward to that exposure, to be honest with you.”

Life on the outside

Leaving the civil service can feel like a big jump but it doesn’t mean starting all over again. “I’m still based very close to Whitehall and still able to engage in the same things which interested me and stimulated me during my time in in government,” Chivers says. 

Similarly, Conyard says he is still involved with DfE “in lots of ways” as part of his new job.

Case also has a thread linking her current work to her previous career, as she coaches lots of civil servants. But she admits running her own business came as “a bit of a surprise”.

“I had thought about what I wanted to do day-to-day, but I hadn’t really thought about the fact that would mean I would have to run my own business and do everything around that,” she says.

Case says she spent quite a lot of the first few months trying to work out the rules for the new game she was in, “then realising that there weren’t any rules and I had to make them myself”.

“If you have spent 20 years following rules and being in a very structured environment, that permission to make your own is quite challenging,” she says. 

“Suddenly I was in this space where I didn’t really know what good looked like; I didn’t really know what people thought of me; I don’t get appraisal. You have to find intrinsic motivation, whereas the civil service is definitely a place of extrinsic motivation. Some of that was a huge learning curve.” 

One of the most challenging aspects has been learning to market herself. “That’s been a surprise and something you don’t get in the civil service so much,” she says. “I’ve learned to love LinkedIn. I’ve got to be on social media, I’ve got to be putting myself out there. That is quite contrary to how I felt when I was constantly in the background and never spoke to journalists.”

For those who want to leave with an eye on a return, the change can be an opportunity to build on the skills they have already learned and come back with new ones. Chetse says he has developed much deeper sector knowledge than he could have gained at DCMS. “I’ve built my network. I’ve got to work on some really interesting questions at a pivotal moment in a really important institution.”

He says the role has been “the best of both worlds in some ways”, doing things that attracted him to the civil service, such as working on big, knotty challenges, but “without some of the constraints”. One of those freedoms is the ability to speak his mind more, he says.

Although leaving has given them opportunities to flourish, all but one of the ex-officials CSW spoke to said they could return to the civil service. Chetse’s intention is to “100% to return”, while Chivers says he assumes he will return “at some point”.

Conyard did not leave with the intention of getting experience and coming back, but says he would under the right conditions. “I just got frustrated with current politics. The lack of stability,” he says. “I think if there’s a world in which we had a more stable government of whatever political persuasion where I felt I could go in, I’d be happy to do that. I never thought I’d leave.”

For Case, there is less of a clear desire to return. “I don’t really miss the day-to-day,” she says. “I really like the flexibility that my new life allows and I’m really enjoying learning how to spread my wings in a new world. That’s really scary but it’s also quite confidence-inducing.” 

This interview was first published in CSW's spring 2023 issue. Since publication, Tendai Chetse has returned to the civil service, working at the Department for Business and Trade.

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