High turnover among civil servants is posing a risk to the delivery of government projects and policies, with as many as 40% of staff leaving one department in 2019, according to the Institute for Government.
The think-tank’s annual Whitehall Monitor report warned that high staff turnover remains a major problem and has hampered Brexit preparations, with the 40% figure being registered at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
The churn at DExEU reflects the temporary department’s staffing model, which relies on fixed-term contracts as well as staff loans and secondments, according to the report, which comes as the department is set to be disbanded at the end of this month.
The proportion of staff departing is up from around 20% in 2017-18. The 2019 departures included permanent secretary Philip Rycroft, two of its three director generals and five of its 10 directors, according to the IfG.
And across government as many as 10 senior civil servants in charge of Brexit planning, including permanent secretaries, changed roles in 2019. This includes two director generals responsible for EU exit at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Tamara Finkelstein and Emily Miles – and Justin Russell, who was the Ministry of Justice’s director general for no-deal EU exit before being named chief inspector of probation, and Matthew Coats, the director general for EU exit implementation at the Cabinet Office. Coates was responsible for managing the Border Delivery Group, which had previously been overseen by Karen Wheeler at HM Revenue and Customs.
High turnover also affected the work of government in other areas, according to the IfG, with the Cabinet Office losing close to a quarter of its staff, or 1,340 people, in 2018-19, for similar reasons to DExEU.
Three other departments had higher staff turnover rates in 2018-19 than 2017-18, according to the report – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Transport and the Department for International Development.
This rate and scale of turnover, alongside ministerial changes since Boris Johnson was appointed prime minister, means government risks losing expertise and energy as it tries to implement the Conservatives' manifesto pledges, IfG programme director and report author Gavin Freeguard said.
The latest figures underline concerns raised by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and one of the manifesto authors, Rachel Wolf, he noted.
“With an emphatic majority, this government will be expected to pass its legislation, deliver on its manifesto promises to invest in public services and infrastructure and ‘get Brexit done’,” he said.
“But there are questions over whether the government can deliver on such an ambitious agenda, and it will not be helped by the high turnover of those tasked to deliver on its promises. The prime minister and his advisers will be tempted to stamp their authority through reshuffling ministers and reshaping departments, but this could cause further disruption.
“It will take more than the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to ‘get Brexit done’, and a lot of hard work to translate ideas in a blogpost into changing how well government works.”
Responding to the report, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said that “excessive churn in jobs undermines expertise in policy making, and accountability for seeing projects through.”
“We plan to address this," he said.
Dowden added: "We need a civil service that is match fit to ensure we deliver on the promises we have made to the British people, and to help forge Britain's new independent role on the world stage.”
The IfG reiterated a previous call for the government to do more to retain officials, including targeted pay progression, as well as improving its data on staff turnover to better manage their workforce. There is currently "little data on turnover, and key figures are difficult to calculate, which contributes to the issue not being taken seriously enough”.
Only two departments – DWP and the Treasury – included these figures in their 2018-19 annual reports. This could improve as the Treasury recommended in its 2019 financial reporting review that the data should be published in all annual reports, the IfG said.
This is one of a number of criticisms the report made of government data, some of which is so poor that it is unlikely the departments themselves can be using the information.
“The low quality, inconsistency and lack of availability of some data suggest that departments themselves cannot be using it. Departments are also, in general, releasing less information in response to Freedom of Information requests than in the past," the report noted. "For the publication of this report, some of our own FoI requests were refused – even by the Cabinet Office, for data it is responsible for telling other departments to publish.”
Despite the impact of Brexit, the think tank found civil service morale has held up in recent years. It noted that according to the annual Civil Service People Survey, civil servants are more satisfied on almost every theme than they were when the data was first collected in 2009. There is one exception – pay and benefits – which has consistently scored lowest since the survey began.
“Pay restraint is one reason given by civil service unions for a record number of civil servants affected by stress, anxiety and depression since the [national] Labour Force Survey started collecting data on this 20 years ago,” the IfG said. “The Brexit-related workload is another likely contributing factor – and Boris Johnson’s commitment not to extend the transition period beyond December 2020 points to another busy year for civil servants.”
The report confirmed that civil service staff numbers have risen in every quarter since the June 2016 referendum to leave the European Union and stated that “many of the civil servants recruited as part of Brexit will need to stay in post even after the UK has left the EU”.
It added: “We have argued before that “there will be work going on across Whitehall for years to adjust to life outside the EU – whether it is developing new systems for the UK’s borders or building capacity in new public bodies”. This will include new systems or processes to manage borders and customs, but also staffing new regulators or institutions, for instance to secure new trade deals or to ensure the safe use of chemicals, if the UK decides to replace EU agencies.”