Pay rises 'not main driver' for civil service churn, ex-perm sec says

Jonathan Slater tells MPs that failure to prioritise expertise and delivery record is root problem
Jonathan Slater gives evidence to PACAC today Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

30 Apr 2024

Former Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater has told MPs he does not believe low pay in the civil service is the primary driver for high levels of churn among officials.

Slater, who was sacked from his job by prime minister Boris Johnson following 2020's exams fiasco, told parliament's Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that churn had deeper root causes.

According to the Institute for Government's latest Whitehall Monitor report, the proportion of civil servants who either moved between departments or left the civil service altogether was 11.9% in 2022-23. The figure is the second-highest rate since at least 2010-11.

Giving evidence to PACAC this morning, Slater – who is now a visiting professor at King's College London – was asked for his thoughts on the phenomenon.

"I do think that the fundamental reason for the churn is that civil service leaders who are choosing who to promote – because that's when the churn happens – don't prioitise expertise, don't prioritise delivery record," he said.

"It can't be that the primary cause is money, because this has been with us for at least 50 years. The words in the Fulton Report are essentially the same. It has got worse in the last 10 years because there is an added financial incentive now on people to get promoted quickly because it is the best way of getting a pay rise. But it has been with us for at least 50 years."

Slater described the "absurd" situation during his time in government of being asked by perm sec colleagues to meet officials from other departments keen to join DfE after working for barely a year in their current roles.

The former perm sec said a new pay regime for departments would be needed to keep talented people in their roles for enough time to see projects through – a period he suggested would be three or four years.

"An ambitious person who has the capability to go upwards needs to know that there is a good opportunity for financial reward if they succeed," he said. "And so you would need to design your HR systems to facilitate that.

"But that would be a very straightforward thing to do. What happens at the moment is that every few years there's a new civil service reform plan announced, published, fanfare: 'We're going to provide opportunities for people to get paid for what they achieve in practice.' It never sees the light of day."

Slater said the "underlying problem" was that civil servants keen to rise to prominent positions know that sticking around in a single role for three years is not the way to do it.

"If my promotion was dependent on me achieving successfully, that's quite hard. If my promotion is instead dependent on me impressing a minister before they move on to someting else, that is a lot easier," he said. "So you can see why the civil service doesn't change the system."

Final 'easy' stepping stone for would-be perm secs

Today's PACAC session for the committee's inquiry into civil service leadership and reform saw Slater quizzed on his 2022 paper Fixing Whitehall's broken policy machine.

Slater was also asked how many times he moved role in his two-decade civil service career.

He ran through three departmental moves before his appointment as DfE perm sec and discounted one technical move as essentially a machinery-of-government change .

Slater said his final pre-perm sec role at the Cabinet Office had been designed to prove he could "do the politics".

"It turns out that the sort of 'finishing job' for potential permanent secretaries, if you're really lucky, is to be the head of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat," he said.

"That's the ultimate DG role. If you've been given that job, the next one will be permanent secretary. That's the one where you go along to cabinet meetings and you write the minutes. By far the easiest director-general job I did."

Share this page