Despite ministers' promises to tackle churn, the civil service whirligig keeps on spinning

IfG research has found a third of top officials have spent less than a year in their current post
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By Jordan Urban

20 May 2024


Michael Gove’s Ditchley lecture was meant to herald a revolution. “If this government is to reform so much,” he argued, “it must also reform itself.”  

What followed was an ambitious set of ideas about what that reform might look like. Pointing to the limited number of officials with “qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions”, he argued that we need more policy makers who “feel comfortable discussing the Monte Carlo method or Bayesian statistics”. Noting the civil service tends to prize “cognitive skills” above all, he argued for a reorientation: delivering “practicable, measurable improvements in the lives of others should matter more.” Describing a career ladder where “promotion comes from switching roles, and departments, with determined regularity”, he promised to end the “whirligig”.  

A lot has happened since Gove’s bold words. Some of the changes he sought to make have been implemented, as the civil service continues its slow journey of self-improvement. But new research by the Institute for Government, supported by Korn Ferry, shows that at its most senior levels, the problems Gove sought to solve remain prominent. 

For one, only 23% of permanent secretaries and directors general have a STEM undergraduate degree, compared to the 44% of total UK graduates that hold one. Perhaps even more notably, we could only find evidence of five officials who were not scientific advisers who had studied a STEM subject to a postgraduate level. One interviewee for our report said that it remained the case that “people don’t tend to value science and scientific qualifications”. 

Churn also remains a problem, even at the highest levels. The whirligig slows at the top, but does not stop. We found that 33% of permanent secretaries and DGs had spent less than a year in their current post. Just a quarter had spent more than three years. Movement that fast is not conducive to getting things done, and means that permanent secretaries can feel pressured to repeatedly fill gaps in their leadership team, leading to shorter-term succession planning.  

There is also a tendency to hire permanent secretaries from the policy profession, even in big operational departments where they may not be the best fit. As one interviewee put it: “There is definitely a ‘type’. They’ve gone through private office and a policy role in the centre into very senior positions.” Furthermore, comparatively few of them have experience outside government. 43% have spent any time outside Whitehall at all, and 22% have over three years’ experience in an external leadership role.  

"33% of permanent secretaries and DGs had spent less than a year in their current post. Movement that fast is not conducive to getting things done"

It is not all bad news. Eleven of the 17 "head of department" permanent secretaries in ministerial departments had experience in their department (or a forerunner) at DG or second permanent secretary level. The era of the "taxi rank" – when top jobs would frequently be given to officials whose "turn it was", regardless of skillset – is clearly over. With Cat Little’s appointment as Cabinet Office permanent secretary, a majority of the same 17 roles are women – something that has received surprisingly little coverage. And 68% of officials have spent at least some time outside government – the civil service is not an entirely closed shop. 

But there remains ample room for improvement. Our report recommends plenty of changes; I’ve picked out three below. 

The civil service should get a grip on churn. Introducing guidance on the expected assignment duration for top roles is positive, but it will only make a meaningful difference if moving early has consequences. Financial incentives, like bonuses paid for reaching project milestones and penalties levied if leaving before an agreed time period, should be introduced. 

There should be more opportunity for senior officials to be appointed from outside the policy profession – including at permanent secretary level, and particularly in large operational departments like the Home Office or MoJ. We are not arguing that policy professionals should be excluded from running large operational departments and it is hard to imagine a permanent secretary that has no policy background at all. But as one interviewee put it, “the skills you need in MoJ and DWP, with big industrial workforces and a very operational focus, are very different to smaller policy departments.” 

Finally, the government should build a proper alumni network to better facilitate in-and-out careers. There is no reason that a DG who has left for a senior role in a business should not one day come back as a permanent secretary, for example. The civil service has struggled to facilitate this type of career path, even though people with leadership experience both inside and outside government in many ways offer the best of both worlds.  

Gove’s ambitions outlined at Ditchley have not been realised. But the election provides another pivot point at which the new or returning government will have the chance to put their stamp on the civil service. Reforms to the way its top ranks are recruited and managed should be a priority.  

Jordan Urban is a senior researcher in the Institute for Government's civil service and policymaking team

Read the most recent articles written by Jordan Urban - Do Rishi Sunak’s civil service reform proposals stack up?

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