Opinion: the civil service needs to think about more than pay to attract the next generation

Government will need to think about more than salary and pension offers for the workers of the future if it is to remain an employer of choice

Photo: GDS/flickr

By Zahir Irani

25 Oct 2017

When LinkedIn recently looked at the habits of 10,000 job changers, the most obvious trend was the rise of the “down-shifter”. People were moving to smaller employers, swapping job security and benefits packages for a new kind of good life – more control and flexibility with a “lifestyle” employer.

It’s a snapshot from a much bigger cultural (and social and economic) change among the under 30s, but it’s not just younger employees. This is an attitude change to work that’s being seen across the age range, employees and entrepreneurs.


Historically, the ability of the civil service to attract and keep hold of its supply of the very best of British graduate talent has been based around a basic solidity: a stairway through a hierarchy, long-term security, holidays and a pension package. Becoming a civil servant has been a case of playing by the established rules, winning the competition for a place and then settling in to make a difference.

There are question marks over how the civil service can stay an attractive option to new generations of talent coming through, and tap into experience from the private sector.

There’s been too fundamental a change in ideas about the role of work in people’s lives for the down-shifters to be ignored by the civil service.

It cannot continue to believe it has all the power as the employer, that its prestige will always be enough to bring in the best.

But there needs to be a balancing note of caution when it comes this new, supposedly freewheeling workforce. Major employers like the civil service shouldn’t panic.

While more people might want freedom, better quality of life and quality of work, there will always be those employees who will prioritise stability over everything else, even if only at particular moments in their working lives. One of the great qualities of the civil service will always be that it offers “good work” – what the Work Foundation and government talks about as the long-term, mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employee, through permanent contracts and consistent opportunities for development and internal progression.

While there are powerful reasons for joining the service, such as the range of opportunities and the chance to be part of the workings of a country, the organisation needs to start ensuring there is a balance between the presentation, tone and reality of what’s being offered.

It’s not just a question of flexing the rewards strategies to tempt in those happy to balance additional risk for higher pay.

There needs to be a wider strategy that takes into account change to the everyday realities and external reputation of civil servant roles. And it needs to run across departments and grades. Just using contracts with external expertise when bursts of specialist talent are needed only serves to emphasise the distinction: we’re the plodders; the movers and shakers can only come in from outside.

Most simply, the working lives and routines of civil servants should be seen to have more space and air: the chance to work more flexibly, and to work remotely where possible. More people need to have the opportunity to take on project-based activities, and to lead on those projects; to be part of more cross-functional teams, and take part in job shares. There needs to be a sharper sense of career ebb and flow via sabbaticals and career breaks for all, alongside bouts of personal and professional development. In terms of investing in physical resources of office space, desks and ICT, this is a win for both sides.

The magic ingredient here is management.

Introducing more flexible models will take managers capable of instigating and dealing with non-traditional patterns of working, who can harness different personalities and their demands and provide them with ongoing direction. This is a very different role from the old-school manager who sits behind the established rules and routines of what’s expected – a model which only encourages presenteeism among staff.

One approach that will help departments to restructure themselves more closely around the aspirations and motivations of new generations of talent will be to shift to an output-based culture.

It will be critical for the civil service to start talking more about roles and work culture in more of the kinds of terms that Generation Z, millennials and the coming Generation Alpha associate with a good employer.

The kinds of experience on offer, the people they’ll work with, the places they’ll go to; not the impressive pay structure, pension and career ladder.

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