DLUHC perm sec quizzed over staff satisfaction and 25% turnover

Sarah Healey says structural issues on civil service pay are partly to blame
Sarah Healey appears before MPs on Monday. Screenshot: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

31 Jan 2024

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities permanent secretary Sarah Healey has said that high turnover at the organisation is partly due to low pay in comparison with other parts of government.

Healey was asked about churn rates at DLUHC and staff satisfaction levels as recorded in the annual Civil Service People Survey at a session of parliament’s Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee earlier this week.

The 2022 survey saw DLUHC’s score in the benchmark employee-engagement index drop by six  percentage points to 60%, below the cross-civil service level of 65%.

Select committee member Ian Byrne asked Healey what lay behind decreasing levels of staff satisfaction at the department – and a staff turnover rate of 25%, which he said was the fourth-highest in the civil service.

Healey told MPs that results from the 2023 People Survey, which have been shared inside government but have yet to be published, showed an improving picture on both measures.

“We’ve obviously seen an uptick again in the People Survey results this year, so a lot of work has been done to address the fact that that fall did happen at a particularly turbulent time in the department’s development,” she said. “Turnover is down to 20% at our last measure, so we’ve definitely addressed some of the issues there.”

Healey said that 2023’s pay settlement for civil servants had been the best “for a very considerable period of time”, but she acknowledged that DLUHC had particular issues even compared with other departments.

“There are some fundamental structural issues, I suppose, which do affect our turnover,” she said. “One of which is the fact that pay at grades below the senior civil service is differentiated between departments and DLUHC is towards the bottom end of the scales on some of that pay, so we do sometimes lose more junior staff to other departments who pay more highly at those levels. That’s a structural issue in civil service pay.”

Healey said work to deal with lower employee-engagement levels and turnover had included internal communications focused on engaging staff with the department’s mission and why it matters.

She added: “Some of it is focused on line-management capability and improving the way that line-management works within the department.”

Healey said there was also “a whole range of things” that could be done to address the way that people felt about working in DLUHC and how strongly they connected to the department.

Supporting levelling up through Places for Growth

Byrne asked Healey how successful the department had been at supporting the government’s levelling-up agenda by growing its offices outside of London.

The perm sec said DLUHC had certainly increased staff numbers outside of the capital and was “extremely positive” about the government’s Places for Growth programme to relocate 22,000 roles away from London over the course of the decade.

However she acknowledged that DLUHC needed to make more progress with locating senior civil servants in the regions.

Michael Gove’s 2021 Declaration on Government Reform set an expectation that 50% of all senior civil service roles would be based outside the capital  by 2030 as part of the Places for Growth programme.

According to DLUHC’s 2022-23 annual report and accounts, the department – which now boasts Gove as its secretary of state – had just 17% of its SCS headcount outside London as of March last year. The document, which was published in July, said the department wanted 37.5% of its SCS headcount to be based outside of London by March 2025.

“We haven’t yet done as much as we would like to do on the senior civil service outside of London,” Healey told MPs on Monday. “We’ve certainly seen that in other departments, and in offices with a really strong senior civil service presence, that’s created a much more vibrant office culture and kind of made that a much better place to work. So that’s something we’re very much focused on for this year.”

Healey was also asked about the presence of ministers at DLUHC’s regional offices, opened as part of the Places for Growth programme. The Declaration on Government Reform promised there would be a “regular ministerial presence” at departmental second HQs.

“Ministers use the offices, particularly when they’re doing visits in the local area,” the perm sec told MPs.

She said a ministerial board meeting had been held at DLUHC’s second headquarters in Wolverhampton “just before” she became perm sec of the department last February and that another had been held in Edinburgh.

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