Quality of SCS called into question by pay review body

Concerns are being raised that the calibre of senior civil servants is falling, amid rising turnover driven by a desire for better pay and prospects
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By Jonathan Owen

17 Jul 2023

The quality of senior civil servants has been called into question by the independent Senior Salaries Review Body. Its report on senior salaries in 2023 warns: "Some indicators of quality suggest the calibre of SCS leaders may be stable and others that it may be falling”.

It adds that barely half (58%) of people appointed to senior roles advertised by the Civil Service Commission in 2021-22 were classed as "good" or "outstanding". The percentage of people in either of these categories has fallen year on year for the past four years and is significantly lower than the 68% in 2018-19.

"The Civil Service Commission noted its concern that the proportion of good candidates applying for senior roles had been falling" the report states. 

“In 2021-22, 29 per cent of competitions chaired by Commissioners found only one appointable candidate (similar to 2020-21)".

The SSRB remains “concerned that the SCS may not be able to attract and retain sufficient leaders of the right calibre”. Although more research is needed to show whether this is the case, “available indicators” suggest that “there may be some deterioration in workforce quality”.

The report also notes that just “two-fifths of SCS received a non-consolidated performance payment last year”. There were no performance awards paid to SCS in the Scottish or Welsh Governments, or to permanent secretaries, it adds.

The report, released last week, points out that “filling SCS posts is over-dependent on internal promotion as vacancies attract too few suitable external candidates”. In 2021-22, 81% of appointments at SCS2 and SCS3 were existing civil servants, a steep rise from 64% in 2020-21.

Another issue of concern is the level of turnover. “Inadequate reward for delivering or developing expertise in role contributes to excessive churn, which reduces the effectiveness of the existing SCS”.

The resignation rate for the SCS increased to 4.9% in 2021-22, “a significant rise” on the previous year’s rate of 3.1%. Turnover rose to 12.4% in 2021-22, up from 10.7% the previous year. When moves between departments are factored in, total turnover was 21.7% in 2021-22, up from 17.4% the year before.

The report reveals a wide range of total turnover rates between different departments in 2021-22, ranging from 11.1% at the Department for Transport to 53% at the Department for Health and Social Care. 

It recommends that senior civil servants are awarded a pay rise of 5.5%, citing “very weak pay growth” in recent years, the rising cost of living, and “evidence that posts attract too few suitable external recruits”. The report also calls for the SCS paybill be increased by a further 1% “targeted at those who are delivering in role” and recommends a £2,000 increase in the minimum pay for civil servants at each of the three SCS pay bands.

The government has confirmed it will accept the recommendations, with Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin describing the 2023-24 remuneration as “the highest award for the SCS for many years”.

A government spokesperson said: “It’s important that pay awards help us attract, retain and develop the very best senior talent for government, while remaining affordable."

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