Civil servants appear to be passing through the new Department for Exiting the European Union to boost their careers, Civil Service World was told, after the emergence of figures on high turnover in the department.
More than 20% of staff left DExEU between its formation in July 2016 and 18 August this year, which Jill Rutter, programme director at the Institute for Government, said was “inefficient” and indicative of a trend of civil servants “using Brexit as an opportunity to move jobs and to get promoted”.
A freedom of information request from Bloomberg revealed that 124 employees had left, while 482 remain, which the department said was largely “the result of normal civil service rotation”.
But Rutter told CSW that while the turnover rate wasn’t extreme, it seemed high in comparison with other departments, and called on the civil service to “get a grip” on its Brexit workforce strategy.
DExEU told Bloomberg that less than five of the 124 had left government altogether, and that it does not hold records on whether those who moved elsewhere in the civil service were promoted.
The department said: “The majority moved on to other government departments because their loan, contract or fast stream rotation ended. Given the large majority of these changes were the result of normal civil service rotation or the end of defined loan periods, these roles were quickly filled.”
The IfG’s Rutter told CSW that DExEU relies on secondments and fast streamers, who are supposed to move jobs quite quickly.
“Central departments always have more turnover because their model depends on people coming in and out,” she said.
But she also pointed to general problems around the civil service’s Brexit workforce strategy.
“They’re bringing lots of people in, and it’s bad news if they’re not holding on to people for a long time,” she said. “A lot of people, as far as we can tell, are using Brexit as an opportunity to move jobs and to get promoted.”
CSW reported in April that Cabinet Office churn had increased from 20% in 2010 to 35% in 2016, which then-Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer partly put down to the transfer out of a large number of staff to DExEU.
Rutter explained that after years of pay restraint in the civil service, Brexit has created new work streams and therefore job opportunities. Civil servants who pass through DExEU, she said, could be seen as “a valuable commodity” for other departments doing Brexit-related work.
“The civil service really needs to get a bit of a grip on this. It needs to think, what are the key posts, and it needs to work out how it’s going to make sure people stay in key posts for long enough to know what they’re doing,” she said.
"It really needs to have a workforce strategy around Brexit because it inefficient to have people moving jobs all the time.”
It can make government less productive to have too many people “on a learning curve”, while it imposes inefficiencies on other departments if their contact at DExEU is changing all the time, Rutter added.
“But it’s also very difficult for external stakeholders who repeatedly complain that they’re being faced with new people.”
The figures follow some high-profile departures for the department in recent weeks. It was announced that former permanent secretary Oliver Robbins would move to a Cabinet Office role as EU advisor to the prime minister from next month; while DExEU’s director of trade and partnerships Antony Phillipson is to move to New York to become consul general.
Robbins’ move prompted speculation that it was part of a power shift away from the DExEU to No 10, and that it could “impact on the Brexit department’s ability to retain and recruit top staff”.