Departing civil service COO 'not worried' about drop in Fast Stream applications

Sir Alex Chisholm says he hasn't seen "any signs at all" that the fall in applicants is affecting the quality of the scheme
Alex Chisholm. Photo: Cabinet Office

By Tevye Markson

19 Mar 2024

Departing civil service chief operating officer Sir Alex Chisholm has said he is not worried about a sharp drop in applications to the Fast Stream.

Chisholm was asked about the 58% drop in applications to the civil service graduate scheme, revealed by CSW, at an Institute for Government talk last week.

He said: “I haven’t seen any signs at all that it's affecting the quality. It's a really popular scheme that's regularly assessed as being the either number one or number two graduate scheme in the country. They've also become much better at inviting people from lots of different backgrounds, different communities. It's a great scheme and I don't have worries about that.”

Chisholm said factors that could explain the drop off in Fast Stream applications include the disruption caused by the political decision to temporarily suspend the scheme in 2022, the deliberate adjustment of the programme towards a STEM subjects focus in recent years, and pay concerns.

On shifting to attract a different pool of applicants, he said: “Everybody that comes to the Fast Stream now goes into a more specialised field, so we're moving away from the generalised ‘it doesn't matter what your background is’ to [being] a bit more focused on the skills that you bring, and also then having slightly more specialised careers. That may be impacting the overall numbers.”

Despite the move to more of a STEM-focused programme, applications to the science and engineering pathway fell by 78% between 2020 and 2023. Asked about this, Chisholm said “it's a very competitive market” and said the government had achieved its target that more than 50% of selected candidates should be from STEM backgrounds.

On pay, Chisholm said the Fast Stream deal agreed in 2023 “will help because we were concerned that there hadn't been an increase for about eight years”. He said the introduction of London weighting, “recognising the huge cost people have in London”, should also help.  

‘Cost is more important than headcount’

Chisholm was also asked about the civil service (full-time equivalent) headcount reaching the 500,000 mark, following the chancellor’s announcement in October of a civil service numbers cap and plans to bring the headcount back to pre-Covid levels.

He said the “cost and sustainability” of the workforce is the “most important thing”, adding that “we shouldn’t only look at civil servants; we should look at public servants”.

“Around about half a million civil servants, around about five million public servants, those are actually quite fungible,” he said. “There are jobs that can be done by civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and by the armed forces that are more expensive to be done by armed forces, but you can move those numbers around. That's true for all other departments as well.

"Plus, cost gets you thinking about: do you want this to be done civil servants at all or would you prefer it to be done by consultants or contractors or other partners that you might have in civil society? So I think cost is your best guide to what you're trying to achieve.”

Chisholm said he expects civil service numbers to fall because, “like any other organisation, we're living through a kind of digital revolution and everybody should be able to use technology and data to... do the tasks they formerly had much more easily at lower cost and with higher levels of reliability”. However, he acknowledged that, at the same time, demand and expectations for public services is growing – “so it's a race between those two things”.

“Because I am relentlessly optimistic, I think that the productivity and innovation will win out against the increasing demand and expectations, and with that it will mean that everybody's job is going to become more valuable because the output of their work will be greater,” he added.

Chisholm also said this should result in better pay packages.

“I think with the right investments in digital infrastructure and training, and everything else that goes with that, it will enable the overall service quality to rise without the costs rising, and that will also improve the capability to pay people a more competitive wage. That's my optimistic view of how that will play out,” he said.

'Not abitrary': Chisholm explains how 60% in-office figure was decided 

Chisholm was also questioned on the edict from heads of departments in November that civil servants should attend the office for at least 60% of their working week.

Asked by an audience member why was it necessary to set an “arbitrary figure” for office attendance “rather than empowering departments to determine what works for them and their business”, Chisholm said the figure “wasn’t arbitrary, it was quite a researched figure”.

He said the government “looked carefully at best practice across the wider economy in the UK, other countries, other comparable organisations” and 60% was the “most typical level we found”.

Chisholm said the government's focus was to find a balance between giving people flexibility and allowing for “good team working, good collaboration, good creativity, a good exchange of ideas and importantly, for training and knowledge transfer between people of different levels of experience”.

He said the status quo approach was also causing problems because it “gave a sense of which individuals could decide for themselves". He said that led to some team leaders feeling "disempowered" when they needed staff to come into the office.

He said the policy has also helped to address concerns over “the sense of equity and fairness”.

“People felt that it was unfair that X was having to come in these days and Y wasn't able to, so having a 'going rate' made that easier,” he said. “Especially bearing in mind that because of the regional hubs programme we have, you've often got people in different departments working side by side and people were drawing adverse comparisons between department A and department B in those places.”

Chisholm said he was also “very conscious” when working on the policy of the fact that many civil servants – such as border force staff and prison officers – go into work every day.

He added: “So far, it seems to be going quite well. Sixty percent seems an OK balance. And that's not surprising that that is the case because so many other organisations have found that too.”

Chisholm did not mention whether office capacity had played a part in deciding on the figure. Some departments have kept to a lower attendance target due to a lack of office space to meet the 60% commitment. 

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