For the civil service, prestige can be a double-edged sword

Prestige, properly practised, can encourage people to join the civil service and keep giving their best. But it can also be toxic
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By Alexander Evans

09 Feb 2024

It’s tempting to buy the line that the civil service has lost prestige and has become a less attractive career. But is that true? Salaries remain challenging, particularly for lower-paid civil servants (especially those in London). Pensions aren’t as generous as they were, although a career average defined-benefit scheme is worth more than most private sector defined-contribution plans.  

Yet graduates in their tens of thousands still want to be civil servants. The civil service Fast Stream remains highly competitive. It roughly matches Goldman Sachs and other top management consultancies for competitive recruitment – no mean feat when salaries are so different. And most stay in the civil service, even if attrition levels rose to the highest level for a decade in the period 2021 to 2022.  

Even so, the civil service departure rate remains low, with less than 10% of civil servants resigning. As the Institute for Government points out, “civil service external turnover is relatively low compared to other organisations”. The increased turnover figures in the period 2021 to 2022 followed an exceptional Covid year of lower turnover in from 2020 to 2021.  

There’s a mismatch between what civil servants report in staff surveys and what they do. Each year, some 18 to 22% of staff report they plan to leave within the next 12 months or sooner. That sentiment is not reflected in actual departures. Total turnover every year in the last decade has usually been about half of this. The presumed appetite to leave may reflect challenges of motivation on pay or engagement, although many civil servants also report a sense of mission and engagement with their role in government. Many value jobs they perceive as secure, even if political and corporate messaging is that the civil service isn’t a “job for life”.  The high number of civil servants still on permanent contracts jars with this line.

Prestige matters, though it’s a double-edged sword. We want public service to be appealing so we can get the right people into it and keep officials motivated. A sense of professional elan encourages officials to go above and beyond, as we saw during Covid and across the many crises that the public sector continues to respond to. It can foster goodwill and effective team building. And if stewarded rightly, it can encourage a culture of commitment to citizens, outcomes and collective excellence.

"In the diplomatic service, I called this 'EOV' – early onset vanity – the risk of taking yourself too seriously once you’ve been called 'Your excellency' a few times"

But prestige can also be toxic. One infectious disease for any competitive institution is an outsized sense of exceptionalism. In the diplomatic service, I called this “EOV” – early onset vanity – the risk of taking yourself too seriously once you’ve been called “Your excellency” a few times. There’s also a deeper challenge around prestige that is linked to the internal dynamics of the civil service. Some roles and some departments enjoy higher internal prestige than others: the lure of the centre, the insider privilege of private office, the ‘importance’ of high-profile strategy, policy, and crisis roles. This can foster a ‘West Wing, East Wing’ dynamic. The West Wing consists of those working closely with ministers on strategy and policy, or whose jobs give them access to the tastiest morsels of insight (and yes, that includes you in the press office). The East Wing includes those on the delivery or operations side of government: managing services at scale, delivering directly for citizens, or ensuring the cross-government functions operate effectively.

East Wingers and West Wingers rarely swap sides in government. Too many live a professional life entirely on one side of this invisible – but well understood – wall. The senior management structures of many central departments are dominated by West Wingers. This complicates making sure we properly value what civil servants do. We live in a world where prestige, properly practised, can encourage people to join the civil service and keep giving their best. But one question the government and civil service leadership could focus on more is how to work to make prestige a consistent asset rather than a sometime liability, both for the civil service as a whole and to bridge the West Wing-East Wing gap.

Professor Alexander Evans is programme director of the MPA in Data Science for Public Policy at the London School of Economics and a former senior civil servant

This article first appeared in the winter 2024 issue of Civil Service World. Read the digital magazine here

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