The civil service is facing a potential demographic timebomb because coalition government-era reductions in headcount were delivered largely at the expense of recruiting new staff, MPs have been warned.
The National Audit Office has told members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC) that the civil service’s 2010-2014 shrinkages have put its pipeline of future talent at risk.
In its submission to PACAC’s current inquiry on the civil service's fitness for purpose, the NAO said departments and their agencies had become institutionally older since 2010.
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It said the proportion of civil servants aged 20-29 had decreased from 14% to 9% at the same time that the proportion of 50-59 year-olds increased from 26% to 31%.
The NAO said that although voluntary redundancy and voluntary exit programmes had accounted for some of the civil service’s reduction size, minimising recruitment was the main way staff numbers had been reduced from 492,000 to 405,000 over the period.
“Following the low level of recruitment, the age profile of the civil service changed between 2010 and 2014, creating a generational gap,” it said.
“We consider it fair to assume that low levels of recruitment and the creation of a generational gap potentially heightens the risk that the civil service will not have the talent and skills needed for future challenges.
“Although there is a growing awareness in government of this risk, at the point [our report was published] there was not yet a clear understanding of the potential consequences and the necessary management actions.”
The NAO’s just-published comments were based on the details of a June 2015 report on central government staff costs.
It also drew together previous research to flag up concerns about procurement capability and project delivery skills among senior project leaders.
Additionally, the public spending watchdog warned that while centrally-imposed restrictions on hiring consultants had reduced departmental spend on non-payroll staff, they had failed to solve the underlying problem of reliance on bought-in talent.
“In the longer term, departments will need to develop workforce, skills and capacity plans to reduce their dependence on external skills,” the NAO said.
“They will need to improve their strategic workforce planning to determine where they can deploy existing staff, where they need to recruit and where they need to engage temporary resources.”