Departments told to make better use of Civil Service People Survey results

MPs demand action plans to tackle problems and question purpose of the flagship Employee Engagement Index

By Jim Dunton

24 Oct 2023

Watchdog MPs have called on government to make better use of the wealth of data collected as part of the annual Civil Service People Survey, with departments being tasked with developing and publishing action plans to tackle reported problems.

Members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee also criticised the Cabinet Office for “indefensible” delays in publishing the results of recent People Surveys and questioned the purpose of the survey’s flagship Employee Engagement Index.

Today's report follows PACAC's inquiry into the People Survey  – which has been an annual fixture since 2009 – that ran from last autumn to spring this year.  

It commends the Cabinet Office for establishing the survey, which garnered well over 300,000 responses last year. But the report complains that despite being a 14-year-old institution, People Survey results are “not yet being used to drive improvements across the civil service”.

MPs said the situation was widely acknowledged among departmental officials and that “few civil servants believe effective action is taken in response to People Survey results”. They said they were “surprised” by the lack of robust evidence that survey results were being used to drive change when the Cabinet Office describes the findings as a “management tool”.

The report acknowledged that issues such as pay and benefits required a cross-government approach. But it said departments and individual teams would be best placed to respond to more localised problems being flagged by staff and that they should officially document their efforts.

“Departments themselves should develop action plans in response to future People Survey results, which define measurable and timely interventions,” MPs said.

“These action plans should be included in departmental annual reports and accounts each year. Departments should also evaluate their success in delivering action plans in future, summarising these evaluations in their annual reports and accounts.”

Each year so far, staff responses to the People Survey have been used to produce the flagship Employee Engagement Index, which fell last year across the whole civil service.

MPs said the index, which reflects answers to abstract questions on civil servants’ pride in the organisation they work for and their role in serving the public, appeared to be of “limited value”, other than in comparing current year’s results with previous years.

The report noted that the Employee Engagement Index did not reflect areas that employers had more control over – such as pay and benefits –  and where staff have “consistently expressed dissatisfaction”.

MPs said the Cabinet Office should instigate a review of the future of the index, in partnership with users of the People Survey, to look at “whether there may be other, more helpful measures available”.

'Indefensible' 

Elsewhere, the report also criticised delays to the external publication of People Survey results, which in recent years have lagged internal publication by several months. The Cabinet Office has also stopped publishing commentary alongside the spreadsheet data for the survey, which MPs said made external analysis of the data “challenging”.

“Given that data and extensive analyses are readily available across government months ahead of their public release, current delays in the publication of data are indefensible,” MPs said.

They called for initial results from the People Survey, which is traditionally conducted in the autumn, to be published at the point that they are distributed to participants – which can be less than a month after the survey closes – and before the end of the calendar year.

MPs also said the Cabinet Office should classify and publish People Survey results as an official statistic, in line with the best practice defined in the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice for Statistics.

PACAC chair William Wragg said the People Survey was an “important tool” in that could offer “rich insights” on the experience, performance and morale of  hundreds of thousands of civil servants across the UK.

“Our recommendations seek to ensure that these important results are put to good use by officials in driving transparency and efficiency improvements within government,” he said.

Wragg said everyone with an interest in the data needed to have equal access to it in a “timely fashion”, while civil servants needed to “feel their voices are being heard and action is being taken in response by their leadership”.

Engagement Index 'should be scrapped'

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, called on the Cabinet Office to scrap the Employee Engagement Index and replace it with metrics that reflected real issues affecting civil servants.

“The committee’s report makes clear that the Civil Service People Survey is asking the wrong questions – or perhaps just the questions ministers are happy to get an answer to,” he said.

“Years of pay degradation and attacks on civil servants by ministers have led to a morale crisis. Rather than burying their heads in the sand, ministers and civil service leaders must take action to restore the civil service to meet the generational crises our country is facing.”

Graham added that there was “little point” in conducting the survey unless its findings were acted upon.

CSW sought a Cabinet Office response to the report. It had not provided one at the time of publication.

This year’s People Survey was open to responses from 19 September to 13 October.

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