Mind the data gaps: how Whitehall can be better informed in 2018

These three resolutions will help civil servants prepare for the challenges and political uncertainty of 2018

Whitehall must improve the quality of data available and increase its use. Credit: Fotolia

By Gavin Freeguard

25 Jan 2018

A New Year means many things. A fresh start. Resolutions. Promptly broken resolutions. And the latest Institute for Government Whitehall Monitor report which (literally) charts the size, shape and performance of the civil service. Given what we have learned from this year’s data, I offer three New Year’s resolutions for civil servants.

The first is of course to read Whitehall Monitor when it’s published on 25 January: with more than 90 charts on and extensive analysis of every aspect of government, it’s an invaluable way to start 2018. It tells us, for example, that the civil service enters the New Year with staff numbers on the rise.

In June 2016 there were fewer civil servants – just over 384,000 – than at any point since the Second World War. But five consecutive quarters of growth later and there are now just over 392,000, though this is still 17% down on 2010.

Much of the recent rise is a sign of Whitehall preparing for Brexit. The newer Departments for Exiting the European Union and International Trade have been building up staff numbers, but so too have departments likely to be affected by Brexit, like the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There will be further recruitment at these and other departments (such as the Home Office) as the civil service continues to prepare for Brexit.

“Of the five permanent secretary appointments in 2017, as many of the roles went to men with the surname Rycroft as they did to women”

Diversity targets

The second resolution should be to take further action on improving diversity and inclusion.

There have already been improvements on gender diversity. A higher percentage of senior civil servants are women than ever before. But women are still underrepresented at the most senior levels: they outnumber men at the more junior grades, but the percentage declines with every step up in seniority.

At the very top, only five Whitehall departments are currently led by female permanent secretaries, down from a peak of eight (for half a week) in 2011. When it came to the five permanent secretary appointments in 2017, as many of the roles went to men with the surname Rycroft as they did to women – two.

The Brilliant Civil Service diversity strategy, published in October, acknowledges there is much more to do on the representation of ethnic minority and disabled civil servants. While 14% of the general UK population is from an ethnic minority, under 12% of civil servants and just 7% of senior civil servants are (of those who declare their ethnicity).

The same holds true for disabled civil servants: 18% of the working age population in the UK is estimated to be disabled, compared to only 10% of civil servants and just over 5% of senior civil servants. In both cases, progress has either slowed or stalled. We look forward to monitoring the new targets departments will be setting to increase representation.

Better data

The third resolution should be to improve the quality of the data available and increase its use in Whitehall. Understanding the composition, capacity and capability of your workforce is essential to planning for the future – especially given the challenges of Brexit. The quality of some of the data currently available makes this difficult: the fact that we don’t even know the professions or specialisms of one in 10 civil servants, for example, suggests that it’s not happening.

There may be good reasons why some civil servants don’t wish to disclose information, but it can make it difficult for the civil service to measure its progress. We don’t know the ethnicity of 23.4% of civil servants or the disability status of 32.8%. Figures are higher still for sexual orientation and faith. Numbers have never been published for the socio-economic background of civil servants, though the Cabinet Office now collects some. This data should be published to highlight any problems and provide stimulus for change. As the prime minister said when launching her recent race disparity audit, it is important that “these issues are now out in the open”, however uncomfortable.

2018 will bring further change for the civil service, against a background of political uncertainty, tricky parliamentary arithmetic and challenges across public services and large government projects. But better use of data to plan and prepare for these challenges will help. I wish you a happy, prosperous, and data-informed new year.

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