Automation likely to shrink civil service workforce, says Sedwill

Cabinet secretary says greater use of automation will allow for better rates 

Sir Mark Sedwill Credit: CSW/Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Jim.Dunton

17 Feb 2020

Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has indicated that the civil service will likely shrink after a period of post-Brexit referendum expansion as increasing use is made of automation and artificial intelligence to deliver services.

But the nation’s top civil servant said he expected the reduction in the size of the service – which numbered just over 419,000 as of September, according to the Institute for Government – to be managed in a “smooth” way through the organisation’s turnover rates. The civil service has grown in number every year since 2016, when its headcount was at a post-war low of 384,260, the IfG said.

Sedwill added that a smaller civil service would also give greater leeway for departments to pay their remaining staff more – and recognised that staff leaving one department for another in order to boost their pay was an “embedded incentive” that Whitehall needed to deal with.


“I would like to see more processes handled by automation, AI and intelligent software,” Sedwill said in an interview with the government’s Civil Service Quarterly publication.

“This means that, overall, we will probably need fewer people. And our turnover means that we can manage that in a smooth way; that we will be able to pay those people who we retain more. It means training them more. It means ensuring, in particular, that where we value EQ as much as IQ, we’re really equipping those people to do the job well.”

According to the IfG, just 9% of staff left the civil service in 2017-18, which is the latest year for which figures are available, but it said the inter-departmental turnover rate was a bigger issue.

While the now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union experienced the highest turnover, the IfG noted that the Cabinet Office had seen a quarter of its staff move to other departments.

The Whitehall Monitor 2020 report said the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; HM Treasury; and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government all had turnover rates above 18%. The IfG said the rates appeared to be an issue with policy-heavy departments.

Sedwill suggested he understood why the civil service had attracted criticism for staff churn and accepted that a decade of pay restraint was one cause – a point made recently by Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s most recent general-election manifesto.

“I think the criticism has some point,” he said. “You can see turnover if, for example, the offices of different departments in the same city pay different rates.

“And though you see more turnover in Whitehall, again, we mustn’t confuse Whitehall, which accounts for only about 10% of the entire workforce, with the civil service as a whole.

“And it’s also true that in certain specialisms, people don’t tend to move. But that doesn’t mean the criticism’s not valid. It comes as much from civil servants themselves as from anyone outside.”

Sedwill acknowledged that the tow-year public sector pay freeze which began in 2010 and subsequent pay restraint – which unions argue has lasted longer for the civil servants than for other workers – was part of the problem.

“I think there are structural factors. Pay is clearly one of them,” he said.

“A decade of pay restraint has made it harder and has incentivised some behaviours that are sensible for the individual but not in the interests of the organisation as a whole.

“If the only way of getting a pay increase at your grade is to move departments, or the only way to get promoted is to move jobs, then people will move. There is something about those embedded incentives we need to address.”

The full interview can be read here.

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