Civil service grows by 10% – but mostly in London, despite levelling up pledge

Government has made "promising start" on civil service relocation but the plan now needs to be delivered, says Institute for Government
Whitehall, London. Photo: Andrew Walters/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

01 Feb 2022

The civil service workforce ballooned by 10% last year amid efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, spurred by an increase in roles in the capital.

There were 472,700 civil servants in September 2021 – nearly as many as there were before austerity-driven staffing cuts began in 2010, the Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor report reveals.

Every department has grown in the last year except the Foreign Office, which shrank by 7%. The Department of Health and Social Care has risen by the largest amount, nearly doubling in size from September 2020 to September 2021.

Ministers outlined plans in the autumn 2021 Spending Review to reduce the civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels by 2023-24, while the government has also committed to making the civil service less London-centric.

“A key question for 2022 will be how ministers and senior officials plan to make these reductions while maintaining the civil service capability needed to achieve the government’s priorities,” the report says.

This is the fifth consecutive year in which the civil service has grown, with Brexit preparations spurring a reversal of cuts under the coalition government.

But while numbers have risen by nearly 100,000 overall since the 2016 EU referendum, there are still fewer civil servants than there were in 2010 in every part of the UK except for London and Wales, with the large increase in London mostly responsible for the return to 2010 levels.

Most of the new roles added since the referendum have been in London, while the recent London-centric growth is largely due to the pandemic-fuelled expansion of DHSC and the Department for Work and Pensions, which hired a combined total of almost 5,000 extra London-based staff.

Despite the disproportionate increase in London-based roles, the IfG said the government had made a “promising start” on meeting its commitment to relocate 22,000 civil servant roles outside London by 2030.

Almost 80% of civil servants already work outside London, but senior and policy roles are still heavily weighted towards the capital. Around two-thirds of senior civil servants are based in London.

Since the 22,000 target was first set out in the March 2020 budget, the government has confirmed the planned movement of more than 6,000 civil service roles to more than 30 different locations outside London.

This has included the relocation of some high-profile senior staff, such as two director generals from the Department for International Trade and the Treasury, who have moved to Darlington.

The increase in hybrid and remote working during the pandemic could help the relocation agenda, but only if ministers and senior officials support the continuation of flexible working, the report says.

Civil service unions recently hit out at “reckless” demands from ministers for officials to return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers following the removal of the work-from-home mandate last month.

‘Some progress’ on civil service reform

The Whitehall Monitor report includes analysis of the government’s civil service reform plans, which were set out in the 2021 Declaration on Government Reform.

The declaration included 30 actions to be completed in 2021, including:

●          Relocating civil servants outside London

●          Enhancing the skills in government through recruitment and training

●          Increasing the diversity of the civil service

●          Improving policy making by fostering closer collaboration between ministers and officials

●          Supporting performance by reforming the accountability of senior civil servants, ministers and departments

The declaration is “ambitious in parts”, the IfG said, and the government “has made some progress” on these priorities since the declaration’s publication, including plans to relocate civil servants.

But the IfG also found progress has been slow in other areas and the government is “yet to realise” the objectives it intended to complete in 2021.

And it also said the declaration “does not fully address some of the most complex, perennial problems of civil service reform, such as confused accountability between ministers and senior officials”.

“Confused accountability leads to blame shifting between ministers and officials, making it difficult for government to learn lessons when things go wrong.”

These leadership issues were also highlighted in Sue Gray’s update report on Partygate, released yesterday, leading to Boris Johnson announcing he would set up a new prime minister’s department.

The IfG has called for the “expired” declaration to be replaced with a new action plan.

Diversity work ‘unfinished’

One of the Declaration on Government Reform actions, diversity continues to increase but the job is “unfinished”, the report said.

As of March 2021:

●          54% of civil servants were female, including 47% of senior civil servants, compared with 48% of the economically active population

●          14% of civil servants identified as coming from an ethnic minority background, including 11% of senior civil servants, compared with 13% of the economically active population

●          14% of civil servants identified as disabled, including 8% of senior civil servants, compared with 15% of the economically active population

This means people with all three of these characteristics are at least or nearly as represented in the civil service as they are in wider society.

The proportion of female senior civil servants has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, while the proportion of ethnic minority and disabled senior officials has more than doubled.

But the IfG said more needs to be done to address gaps in representation among the senior civil service.

The government had committed to publishing a new diversity and inclusion strategy by the end of 2020 but this has not happened yet. Progress will need to continue if the civil service is to become genuinely representative of the population it serves and the strategy is key to that, the report added.

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