Civil service leaders are keenly aware of the dual pressures of pay for staff and the cost-of-living impact for the nation as a whole, Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Antonia Romeo has said.
Speaking at the Institute for Government’s annual conference today, Romeo said MoJ staff feedback in the autumn’s Civil Service People Survey had been dominated by comments about pay and progression.
Against the backdrop of escalating strike action by civil servants over pay, Romeo was asked what she and her perm sec counterparts were thinking about challenges related to staff remuneration during a panel discussion on Whitehall reform.
“Obviously it’s an issue that we’re very… the cabinet secretary, who is the head of the civil service, and perm secs are very seized of and focused on,” she said.
“We work for the public, and what is happening economically in the country and in the global context means that we recognise the constraints. So obviously we want to do what we can for our people but we also acknowledge this is an incredibly difficult time for the whole country, and that’s really important.”
Romeo told the event that her festive-season tasks had included reading through around 30,000 responses submitted by MoJ staff to the 2022 people survey. She suggested wage levels had been one of the most significant issues flagged by officials in the individual “free” feedback section.
“As well as pay the other most commonly raised issue is career progression,” she said. “So there’s no doubt people are very focused on career progression, and we want to be employing the best people because we’re in a war for talent with all sectors. We want to be recruiting and retaining the best people.”
In a nod to data on civil service pay from the IfG’s Whitehall Monitor, presented earlier in the session, Romeo acknowledged that offering competitive salaries to attract outside talent into the civil service was not an option for departments.
“We can’t do it, as you’ve just demonstrated,” she said.
“We do it on purpose: it’s a massive privilege to do what we do, it’s a privilege to serve the country, serve the government. No-one joins the public sector for the pay, really – few people would. It’s for the purpose and the mission. But alongside that we’ve got to create the right working conditions and give people the opportunity to develop their careers and to have their talents recognised.”
Romeo was also asked what single thing she would change about the civil service, given a magic wand.
The perm sec said she would try to drive a mindset change among staff to embed some of the innovative thinking applied to recent emergencies, such as the Covid pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, into everyday operations.
Romeo said cab sec Simon Case and her perm sec colleagues viewed responses such as the various pandemic aid packages and the rollout of restrictions on business with Russian firms as the civil service “at its best”.
“So the question is: how can we harness that to get better at being innovative all the time?” she said.
“One of the challenges is we work with taxpayers’ money and the flip side of innovation is failure. We have to be very careful about that.
“The cabinet secretary talks about the risk of missed opportunity, so if we’re not more innovative, if we’re not focusing all the time, bringing more interdisciplinary teams together and getting better at that process to be more innovative, we will miss some of those opportunities. And that’s partly process, and partly mindset – which is where the magic wand comes in.”