What the UK civil service can learn from developing countries on pay and acting on evidence

Despite Whitehall’s global reputation for integrity, it can still learn from a developing country civil service survey

Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The UK civil service would be the envy of many developing countries. In global comparisons, it scores low on corruption and high on government effectiveness. In many developing nations, stereotypically, the opposite is the case.

The results of our own research confirm as much. With funding from the UK Department for International Development, researchers at University College London and the University of Nottingham recently conducted the largest-ever survey of public servants in developing countries, with more than 23,000 respondents in ten countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

In countries such as Malawi, for instance, we find that over 40% of surveyed public servants are willing to take bribes, and over 30% indicate that they have diverted government funds to benefit politicians or parties. Moreover, across all of these countries, 41% of public servants get into government thanks to support from friends or family, and 20% through political connections. Through reforms in the 19th century in particular, the UK civil service has overcome many of these problems. What then could it possibly learn from a developing country civil service survey?

We argue that our survey nonetheless has two important lessons for the UK civil service.

Sufficient pay

The first is on the importance of protecting the basic foundations of effective civil services, including sufficient pay. Across our surveyed countries, we found three sets of management practices which were relatively consistently associated with more motivated, ethical, committed and performing civil servants.

First, recruiting public servants through open competition and assessments which curb nepotism and politicization of hiring. Second, giving public servants a sense that performance matters for their career advancement prospects or pay. Well-implemented performance evaluation systems foster this sense that performance matters, while poorly implemented performance evaluations undermine it. Third, paying public servants enough to retain motivated staff.

The UK’s own civil service survey – the Civil Service People Survey – suggests that the third foundation – pay – in particular is in peril. Only 34% of public servants in the UK are satisfied with their total benefits. By comparison, 37% of public servants in the 10 developing countries surveyed in our study were satisfied with their pay (in a slightly differently worded indicator). This is, of course, not to say that pay in the UK civil service has fallen to developing country standards. Rather, it is to indicate that sufficient pay is one foundation of an effective civil service, and plausibly the one most in peril in the UK.

Evidence into action

The second lesson is to translate civil service survey evidence into action. Civil service surveys can provide important data to governments wishing to improve civil service management. This holds all the more when they are complemented by statistical analyses to identify the causes of low motivation, commitment and integrity.

To illustrate with just one of our surveyed countries, in Chile, we found that 18% of surveyed public servants were willing to engage in unethical behavior when presented with a scenario in which a public servant faced a conflict of interest. Whether they had ethics training or not thereby made no statistical difference. Faced with this evidence, several Chilean state institutions revised their approach to ethics training.

In the UK, this translation of survey evidence into better management practice seems to be, at least in the perception of public servants, only sporadically occurring. Only 36% noted in the latest Civil Service People Survey that effective action has been taken on the results of the last survey.

There are, of course, many potential reasons for this. One is that the data itself is often not actionable. Rather it requires statistical analysis to assess which management practices shape public servants’ attitudes and behaviors. The UK only does this to a very limited extent in the survey’s ‘Driver Analysis’. Developing country civil service surveys show that designing civil service surveys suitable for statistical analyses to improve management practices is feasible and helpful.

In short, civil services in the developing world have much to catch up with the UK when it comes to civil service management. For the UK, our findings about civil services in developing countries nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of the need to protect the basic foundations of effective civil services, including sufficient pay. Beyond that, they underscore that more can be done to translate civil service survey evidence into action.

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