The civil service must tackle its middle-aged problem – or risk becoming a monoculture

We must challenge the assumption that every civil servant wants the same bundle of rewards or a career for life

By Andrew Greenway

12 Sep 2016

Some say the Daily Mail is a newspaper for old women of all ages and both sexes. The civil service is an institution for middle-aged people of all ages. This is a problem.

Not, I hasten to add, thanks to my lazy prejudices as someone born after Dixon of Dock Green got cancelled. No, the problem occurs when an institution is shackled by chains that assume everyone will act in the basically same way.

The civil service’s median age is 47. Last year, 61% of civil servants fell into the 40–59 age bracket. For senior civil servants, that median rises by two years. Almost four in five of all senior mandarins are in the 40–59 group.

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In 2015, 0.2% of senior civil servants were under 30. To put it another way, that’s ten people (the Office for National Statistics rounds to the nearest ten, so it could be as many as fourteen.)

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy of our age is a caricature of mid-life crisis. It finds it hard to lose weight. It’s tired. It doesn’t particularly care what young people think, especially about its looks. It forgets where it has left important information. It catches itself acting like the previous generation, feels embarrassed about it, and then considers that the old folks were probably right. It’s even getting cats. Gardening can’t be far behind.

But the point is not that the 40–59s group is distorting the way the civil service behaves. It is more that the civil service has set itself up to create this dominant group. In doing so, it is making itself incapable of building a genuinely diverse organisation, despite all the well-publicised efforts to do so. Slipping into monoculture doesn’t just harm diversity in measurable statistics. It impedes the organisation’s diversity of thought and ability to deliver. Hence the problem. 

You can’t see the Earth is round when you’re standing on it. The wellspring of an organisation's culture is rooted in ideals that loom large – and the biggest are usually the hardest to see.

The civil service has at least two of these. The first is that every civil servant wants the same bundle of rewards. The second is that working in government is a career for life. Knock these off their axis, and you could change the bureaucracy for good or ill. The outcome depends on what you choose to replace them with.

"By offering inflexible rewards and assuming employees will stick with them, the civil service prices itself out of a vast group of talent in all ages and backgrounds"

When one signs up to be a civil servant today, you receive a package of benefits. The opportunity to work on things of real public value. A base salary — less than you’d like and lower than you might command doing the same job in the private sector — but not insultingly small. The pension, faded compared to its predecessors, but still beating the market. Unparalleled job security. A holiday allowance, parental leave and sick pay deal that trumps most companies. And if you’re lucky, access to a caliginous gym hidden somewhere in the department’s basement, which smells of socks and liniment.

Despite the murmur of complaint about public sector rewards, there are many people who are doing well out of the current arrangement. Those in their last years of public service have one eye on the finishing line and one eye on the pension pot. And why not? They’ve worked hard, they are more likely to own property than their younger colleagues, and this was the deal they signed up for.

Their sweet spot is for others an inflexible offer only attractive to a certain type of person, at a certain point in their life and career. Parents may put a higher value on a dependable mortgage payment, a good summer holiday, and the chance to spend more time as a family. Millennials looking at the urban housing market will search in vain for anything a government employer can offer that resembles a step towards bricks and mortar. Risk-takers of all ages score job security lower than association with bold projects.

Civil service benefits come predicated on the idea that once you’re in, you’re in for good. That’s a reasonable assumption for the bureaucracy’s current sign-up sheet. Unfortunately, the idea of a monogamous 40-year career doesn’t tally with the student loan generation. The chance of pension benefits in the 2060s versus paying off five figure debts now? It’s like comparing the Blue Peter time capsule to Snapchat. And it isn’t just shiftless youth tilting this way. In the US, employees average 4.6 years in any given job.

By offering inflexible rewards and assuming employees will stick with them, the civil service prices itself out of a vast group of talent in all ages and backgrounds. It weakens itself unnecessarily by doing so.

The argument for leaving the civil service's middle aged spread unchallenged rests on the notion of experience. Yet one of ministers’ most frequent complaints of their official advisors is the lack of memory in the policy area. If a secretary of state has more than three years at the same place on the Cabinet table, he or she will frequently find themselves the oldest hand in policy discussions back at the department. 

"The worst thing to do would be to flip in to culture war mode. Uproot the current inflexibility, and replace it with a new, fixed offer designed to attract a new group"

The experience that officials build is not deep policy knowledge; it is that of being a civil servant. The process, mechanics, and above all, language of government. That’s important, but it’s not what ministers or citizens necessarily value highest.

Rather than tackle the issue head on, some oblique attempts have been made to fix it. Small-scale workarounds have been going on for decades. Private secretaries extract extra money through overtime agreements; a prime example of (typically younger) staff given the implicit choice between their work-life balance, stamina and cash.

It would be better to set up a system that lets all employees pick rewards that matter to them at that particular time. That might mean more cash and less holiday. It might be a pension pot top-up or more childcare time, alongside a more modest salary. It could change according to circumstances. Whether public servants should get a bigger reward is a separate question. The flexibility is what matters.

The worst thing to do would be to flip in to culture war mode. Uproot the current inflexibility, and replace it with a new, fixed offer designed to attract a new group. Or even worse, do this in an ever more fragmented way – changing the incentives in some professions to open them up for one group, but closed to others. Doing this is a recipe for greater tribalism, and Whitehall does not need any more tribes.

By making its rewards more reflective of the people it serves, the civil service would become a stronger organisation.

Read the most recent articles written by Andrew Greenway - Andrew Greenway: How GDS conquered the world

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