'The message is clear': Cab sec acknowledges civil servants' pay anger

Civil Service People Survey results "heading in the wrong direction", Case says as scores fall across the board
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

Top civil servants are working with ministers and unions to improve pay “as a priority”, the cabinet secretary has said, after the annual survey revealed unhappiness with wages and a drop in morale.

But Simon Case warned there may not be “immediate solutions” to the problems revealed in this year’s Civil Service People Survey, which gauges attitudes on areas such as pay, treatment of staff, workload and overall wellbeing.

Case and the heads of government departments wrote to officials this morning after scores for “all the main themes” dropped across most departments compared to last year.

"In recent years there has been welcome progress in many areas. This year, however, is different as the situation has worsened on many counts," he said.

He said the results are “heading in the wrong direction and show that you feel things have become worse".

Pay and benefits were a particular concern among the nearly 350,000 officials who responded to the poll, he said, along with the pace of change in the civil service.

In the 2021 survey, just 38% of officials felt their compensation “adequately reflects” their performance – down from 40% the year before.

“Overall the message is clear and we hear it,” the cab sec wrote.

“The higher cost of living has put unprecedented pressure on people and we are working with ministers and unions as a priority to find ways to improve the situation regarding pay and benefits.”

But he stopped short of promising radical change on pay or any of the other issues raised in the survey.

“We can’t promise an easy year ahead; there is still a lot to deliver in challenging circumstances. And we can’t promise immediate solutions to the problems you’ve highlighted,” he said.

“But we do want to say that you have been heard and that we commit to do everything within our power to make your working lives better. It is only by improving that we will be able to rise to the challenges of the future and achieve what the nation expects of us.”

The all-staff memo, seen by CSW, comes ahead of the first strikes in what the PCS union has promised will be the “hardest-hitting industrial action the government will have faced in decades”. Staff in 126 departments have voted to strike over pay, pensions, job security and conditions.

Average pay rises were effectively capped at 3% – 2% plus a 1% top-up if employers could make the case that it was needed for recruitment and retention – at most departments and agencies.

Inflation hit 11.1% in October and civil servants in several departments – including the Department for Work and Pensions and the Environment Agency – have reported using foodbanks, as well as cutting back on essentials, to cope with rising costs.

Addressing officials’ other main concern – uncertainty – Case said he and other civil service leaders “recognise the value of continuity”.

The last few months have seen a number of U-turns on policies affecting the civil service – including the sudden announcement of a plan to cut 91,000 jobs via a newspaper article in May, which was later scrapped after weeks of speculation over whether it would go ahead. Two changes in prime minister, and changes in messaging on flexible working and other issues, have contributed to the turbulence.

Case did not say how he planned to increase stability, but referenced a previous message from prime minister Rishi Sunak to civil servants in November, which Case said placed "stability and confidence at the heart of the government’s agenda”.

The cab sec also recognised that the results show progress has stalled on tackling bullying and harassment. He said the proportion reporting experiences of either “remains at its lowest ever level” – suggesting it has stayed static at last year’s 7%. 

While there has been “progress on inclusion and fair treatment across our organisations” in recent years, Case said, “some areas are still not good enough”.

“We cannot be satisfied with a situation where thousands of colleagues still report having experienced or witnessed bullying, harassment or discrimination of any kind and we will redouble our efforts to stamp it out,” he said.

The cabinet secretary acknowledged a number of other factors that had contributed to 2022 being a “difficult year” for civil servants – including “significant political turbulence and media commentary”; international events; and economic challenges.

Case said he and his fellow permanent secretaries had discussed the survey results this morning, and that they will be distributed this week.

“We wanted to pass on, as early as possible, those thoughts and this response as agreed by us all,” he said.

He said civil service leadership will decide how to address the results after reviewing them in more detail in the coming days.

“As we move forward we will keep open the communication and engagement with you, so that we continue to listen and seek your views as we make improvements,” he said.

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