One third of staff Government Digital Service are leaving the service every year, director general Kevin Cunnington has revealed.
evidence given this week to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Cunnington said that since mid-2016, the organisation’s annual rate of employee churn has risen from 21% to 31%, meaning that at its current staff rate, about one in three people currently working at GDS will not be there in a year’s time.
He pointed out that, in the last year, the organisation has brought back in-house 150 roles that were previously filled by contractors, which has inflated the attrition rate, according to Cunnington. He added that another contributory factor has been the transfer of the government’s data policy function from GDS to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – a process which is understood to have affected about 15 people.
Churn is also typically driven by GDS’s location in London, which Cunnington characterised as a “competitive market” for digital skills.
But the Cabinet Office’s role in offering secondments and temporary roles to departmental staff was cited as the primary driver of the high rate of attrition.
Cunnington was asked whether evidence previously given to the committee – by ex-GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore – suggesting that the organisation had a high staff attrition rate was “a fair analysis”.
“It is a fair question,” he responded. “When I first joined GDS… attrition rate was 21% – which is about the industry norm. And, at the time, it was the third lowest in Cabinet Office. There is something to explain here, which is that Cabinet Office encourages people to come on [secondment] come for a couple of years, then go back out – so we tend to have a higher attrition rate than, say, [the DWP] – which is at 8%.”
He added: “Our attrition rate today is 31%. Most of the people that leave GDS go back and work in departments – and I am entirely comfortable with that as the situation.”
Go with the flow
Matthew Gould, director general for digital and media policy at DCMS, said that government ought to take a wider view of digital skills – one that encompasses industry and academia, as well as the civil service.
He said: “I was previously ambassador in Israel where I saw the whole tech scene up close. One of the things that is very different there is they have a flow of people through government agencies, academia, and economy, and they cycle round and through, and it is easy. It is relatively low friction to be able to move through those different bits. That flow is really helpful. I would be very wary of getting to a point where you regard people moving on as a tragedy. Actually – if you can get it right – it is a really good thing.”
"Most of the people that leave GDS go back and work in departments – and I am entirely comfortable with that as the situation."
Kevin Cunnington, GDS
When asked by the committee what changes he would like to see in how government conceives of and addresses digital skills, Gould added that he would like “to emphasise the value of the flow” of talented people between different sectors.
“There is mindset that when somebody really good moves on it is a tragedy – but actually it is not necessarily so,” he said. “There are also frictions and hurdles – sometimes we don’t make it easy for people to come in, and we certainly don’t make it easy for people to leave. I think encouraging government to look at how the system works to get people who understand the tech sector, and can come [into government] from the tech sector – and go out again – I think that would be really useful.”