Churn at the top of the civil service rewards managers, not leaders

Short stints in top jobs make firefighting a more rational career plan than pushing for systemic changes – and may make it harder for outsiders to break in

By Andrew Greenway

14 Nov 2016

On average, the civil servants sitting on departmental boards have spent less than two years in their current role*. Yet despite all this change, so much stays the same. Why? 

The average experience is only a little less than two years — 23 and a half months, to be precise – but that brevity still feels startling, one of those facts that just shouldn’t be true. Like the fact you can travel overland between Norway and North Korea by only passing through one country. Or that the British government spends more on IT than it does on Wales. 

At the time of writing, permanent secretaries bring more experience to their brief than directors general; 24 months over 23. Some departments (Defra, the Treasury) have settled boards. Others are fresh-faced (DCLG). Just 10 board-level officials have been in their job longer than the cabinet secretary, with Sir Jeremy Heywood taking his seat in January 2012. 

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For an institution that parades its permanence in cold, grey stone, the evanescence is surprising. For comparison, the average tenure of a S&P500 CEO in 2014 was 9.7 years, according to Forbes. The executive lifespan on a FTSE 250 company is around five-and-a-half years.

This is not just an anomaly of a busy political year. Taking out organisations created via recent machinery of government changes — BEIS, DIT, DExEU — only increases the average tenure by 3 months. 

Does momentary management matter? If you ask politicians, the answer tends to be yes. The Institute for Government’s excellent "Ministers Reflect" series records a steady stream of moans from secretaries of state gone by. They complain that there was barely time to learn their senior advisors’ names before finding them replaced by another shiny pair of shoes. Public Accounts Committee meetings frequently hear the refrain of major programmes having more SROs than a Scrabble bag.


Yet there is a struggle to articulate exactly why fleeting leadership is a problem. The portrait of senior mandarins as fly-by-nighters has been sketched for decades, but it hasn’t been fingered conclusively as the primary cause of any political departures or programme failures (though it has been deemed partially culpable for some). 

The principles that drive executive churn in the public sector go back to a founding idea of the modern civil service; that officials should be interchangable. In the Northcote-Trevelyan model, fungibility is a core competence of the incorruptible administrative class. 

When that basic idea was conceived, it was only intended for the more junior cogs in the machine to be swapped in and out. The big beasts were expected to bring something different. This subtlety appears to have been forgotten over time. 

"If an ambitious DG sees that her most promising path to the top requires climbing aboard a carousel of brief roles, she may not feel she can push for long-term organisation change"

One of the more visible problems created by high executive turnover is a bias in favor of managing rather than leading — getting lost in the "guff", as Oliver Letwin put it. Short job tenures make firefighting a more rational career plan for senior civil servants than pushing for systemic changes. Strategic caution and a tendency to avoid rocking the boat is a logical extension of this. 

If an ambitious DG sees that her most promising path to the top requires climbing aboard a carousel of brief roles, she may not feel she can push for long-term organisation change in good faith. She’ll be gone before it can be landed after all. It would more responsible, perhaps, to not bother.

Worryingly, this exchangable senior management cadre may make it harder for outsiders to successfully break in. As a new DG with 15 or more years experience pounding the government beat, you know with some confidence that one, two or more of your peers have done essentially the same job as the one you’ve just stepped into. If you’re well-networked and relatively likeable, your personal knowledge management strategy is in the bag. 

Even when senior mandarins don’t have subject matter knowledge to hand, they will usually have two stabiliser wheels to prop them up while finding their rhythm — familiar processes and people. Their political bosses and colleagues coming in fresh from the private sector lack one or both of these luxuries. 

For these outsiders, there are no stabilisers. Your propensity to stumble over the bumpy history, geography and chemistry of central government is high. You can choose either to attach training wheels by trying to assimilate, play the game and build your network — entrenching existing norms. Or you can pedal really, really quickly. Sometimes the latter will work. Quite often, it won’t.


So if you buy the idea that the civil service could be better-managed, what’s to be done? Term limits for senior officials are a common suggestion. But building in inflexibility is a dangerous game; after all, continuity is only a virtue in combination with competence. And as we’ve seen, the problem is not necessarily that leaders don’t stay long enough in one role; it’s that they stay too long in one system.

One alternative might be to increase the permeability of the senior civil service in both directions. The mixed record of "tsars" and other outsiders suggests that simply bussing more in is not enough. For it to be worth going to the effort of attracting high-flyers, steps would also need to be taken that soften the advantages of incumbency. 

I would suggest putting a contract limit on every civil servant from deputy director upwards of – let’s say – seven years. They are free to take on as many roles around government as they wish in that time. But after that point, they must leave central government. A few years later, they could come back if they wish, and I imagine some will — via an open competition.

"Beyond some rather half-hearted efforts to create ad hoc industry secondments, the civil service is not set up to cope well with those who want a career with government episodes"

Recent analysis on the future of work suggests that greater flexibility and non-linear career paths will be more of a default option for public sector’s future leaders. But beyond some rather half-hearted efforts to create ad hoc industry secondments, the civil service is not set up to cope well with those who want a career with government episodes, rather than a career in government full stop. 

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges for gig-based government. The lobbying implications aren’t trivial, for example. Changes in power dynamics with those roles that can’t be made transient, like military positions, are complex. But it could make the civil service less broken by ephemeral "same old" leadership, more reflective of the society it serves, and more open to healthy, well-managed change. At least until the next boss turns up. 

*A note on the analysis: Average tenure is according to the appointment date of the 140 or so officials who run the biggest public sector organisations in the UK. Appointment dates were taken from the ‘Our Management’ pages of GOV.UK, or other official announcements. Where no month of appointment could be found, a January start was assumed. Tenure was calculated up to October 2016. Officials from all ministerial departments and HMRC were counted. Non-executive directors were not counted.

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