The creation of the Treasury's northern base has made the civil service more effective by diversifying thinking among staff – but has done little to further the government's levelling up agenda, according to the Institute for Government.
The Darlington Economic Campus has improved how government works by enabling talented people who cannot or do not want to live or work in London to join the civil service, the IfG said.
However, the think tank's latest report found the DEC has had "only had a limited economic effect" on the region since being set up in 2021.
The campus is part of the government’s Places for Growth programme, which aims to relocate 22,000 civil service jobs away from London by 2030 and has hit the halfway mark three years in. The agenda aims to bring more diversity of thought to the civil service, expose policymakers to different realities across the UK and level up deprived areas.
While the report was positive about DEC achieving the first two goals, it said the number of jobs relocated is not substantial enough to meaningfully reduce regional inequality and so civil service relocation should not be considered as a primary tool of levelling up.
The IfG said the campus, which currently houses around 600 staff from multiple departments and is expected to eventually accommodate around 1,400 officials, has had some limited levelling up success, with an increase in local pride in Darlington and a “modest” economic boost in the area.
But its main advantage has been to increase "cognitive diversity" among civil servants, the think tank said.
"Staff at the campus have a diversity of lived experience that the civil service as a whole currently lacks, and this has made a positive impact on the way policy is made," the report said.
This diversification has not just been regional but also professional, with – for example – 69% of Treasury officials at the campus new to the civil service. Many recruits are from the police, education system and local government, the report said.
Jordan Urban, an IfG researcher and an author of the report, said: “Despite some scepticism at its outset, the Darlington Economic Campus has shown that, if done well, relocation can improve the civil service’s effectiveness.
“It has given talented people in a different part of the country the opportunity to contribute to the civil service, changed the way policy is made and broken down Whitehall siloes.”
One person interviewed for the report said: “I think [the campus] has shifted mindsets… the people making policy are more exposed to the realities outside London and so more interested in understanding why things are as they are. Tapping into people with different backgrounds, you tap into a diversity of thought.”
However, the report warned that for the campus’s early success to continue, jobs in the civil service must become more accessible to external recruits. “Currently the civil service closes itself off from too many of the people it says it wants to attract,” it said.
It says would-be civil servants have been put off by “impenetrable job adverts”. One interviewee who had been interested in applying for a role based at the DEC described how “the job advert lost me, so I lost interest in the job”.
Another interviewee said: “Civil service jargon is a real problem for local people trying to get jobs at the campus. I knew a caseworker for an MP who was interested in a job… but didn’t understand the role as advertised. When you stripped it back to what it actually was, he was more than skilled to do it. But even him, already working in politics, lacked the confidence to apply.”
Earlier this year, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm said he wanted to improve the way jobs were advertised to address this issue. He told CSW that civil servants at DEC “were saying the way we recruit is a bit old fashioned in some respects, with the job descriptions we use and some of the expectations that we have for new joiners”.
The paper also said that, to get the best out of the DEC, the rest of the civil service will need to become more open to new ideas and perspectives. Ministers will need to continue to play their part, by giving staff permission to work from home and regularly visiting and working at the campus, it added.
Responding to the findings, Treasury second permanent secretary Beth Russell and Jo Crellin, director general for trading systems at the Department for Business and Trade, said: “The Darlington Economic Campus continues to go from strength to strength and we’re pleased it has been recognised as a blueprint for civil service relocation.
“Local people are bringing a wealth of talent and diverse ways of thinking to the table, with their contribution making a real difference in the running of this country.
“We’ll continue to work with the other government departments that have a home at the DEC to build upon these many early successes for the long term.”