If Keir Starmer is serious about delivery, he must be bold on civil service pay

After years of politically driven decisions, civil service pay is broken. The government must tackle the issue head on if it is serious about delivering for the public
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By Lauren Crowley

08 Jul 2024

The new prime minister, Keir Starmer, appears to be prioritising delivery as fundamental to achieving his government’s goals, with mission-based government and mission boards getting two mentions in his two first public appearances since the election.  

The focus on delivery is not surprising; rather, it is essential. Public services, including the civil service, are in dire need of investment and renewal and a wide range of other issues need urgent attention. Starmer will need to deliver change at pace to achieve his aim of rebuilding the country, with only five guaranteed years of government in office. The prime minister was at pains during his first press conference from No.10 on Saturday to demonstrate how quickly his government had started work. 

Crucial to delivering change, although usually too far down the priority list, will be deploying a highly effective, talented, expert civil service. From economic growth to reforming the justice system and building clean energy – every single governmental goal relies on thousands of civil servants to deliver them. 

Some work began before the general election, with the Civil Service People Plan looking at making changes to recruitment and line management capability by 2027. But it has been easier and more politically convenient for ministers to attack the productivity of civil servants or announce headcount cuts than to take difficult decisions about investment and long-term thinking. If the prime minister is serious about quickly delivering change for the country, then he’d be well advised to tackle the issue of civil service pay head-on, and not kick the challenge further down the road. 

"The new government cannot afford to ignore this issue... the civil service is in real danger of losing the talent and skills it needs to improve the lives of the public"

Civil service pay is broken, as we showed in our State of pay in the civil service report last year. It has been suppressed, neglected and restrained over many years; it fails to compete with jobs elsewhere and provides little progression. Departments have little autonomy or flexibility to address workforce needs. Pay business cases to HMT are difficult to win and take too long to implement – disincentivising departments from submitting them. Civil servants in SCS grades are not uncommonly paid less than members of the teams they manage.  

The new government cannot afford to ignore this issue. Research from the last twelve months has shown that almost a third of our members (42% in the senior civil service) are looking for jobs outside the civil service; 87% said pay was the key driver for leaving the civil service; and 70% reported a decrease in morale over the last year. The civil service is in real danger of losing the talent and skills it needs to improve the lives of the public. 

Improving the mechanisms for delegating pay will not achieve the major reform needed – the new government should be bold in taking steps to overhaul pay. Over a decade of decisions on pay driven by politics and ideology has left the civil service hamstrung and falling short of fulfilling its potential. One alternative worth exploring for delegated grades is the creation of a pay review body, which would be evidence driven and independent of government. 

While there will be hundreds of organisations, groups and sectors vying for the new government’s focus, ministers would be wise to start the job of reviewing civil service pay now. The sooner they can raise morale, reward work, attract talent and expertise, and signal to civil servants that they are valued, the more effective the civil service will be at delivering across every single governmental priority. 

Lauren Crowley is assistant general secretary at the FDA union

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