Taking the fast train out of Westminster

Among the departments, the DfT has seen most churn at the top – but since 2010, half have lost as many director-generals as they employ. As Jon Stone reports, turnover among perm secs and junior ministers is even faster

By Civil Service World

19 Dec 2013

Cast an eye over the Channel to continental Europe; let your gaze linger on France, then Greece. There, civil service jobs are for life, much to the chagrin of would-be reformers and IMF auditors, and the lumbering pace of staff change is widely seen as damaging to efficiency.

In the United Kingdom, we seem to have the opposite problem: head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake has said that civil servants don’t stay in their jobs for long enough, and lead non-executive Lord Browne has warned about churn amongst perm secs. Here, persistently high staff turnover is regarded as an obstacle to the functioning of government.

“It’s quite ironic, because normally civil services are critiqued for the exact opposite: no turnover and mobility, and people being there too long,” says Julian McCrae, deputy director of the Institute for Government. “It’s almost like the UK civil service has overshot that.” And Colin Talbot, Professor of Government at Manchester University, says that in the UK top civil servants are treated like barristers – “expected to master a brief very quickly, go in and present a case, and then move on to the next one”.

A state of affairs where staff are almost permanently new to the job, McRae argues, can mean a department losing expertise in a topic and the ability to build relationships with external organisations. Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, warns that churn is a problem anywhere where “institutional memory” is required. “People in post [must] have really relevant experience for the job that they are doing, and that means they cannot be chopping and changing job and departments at this rate,” he says.

To quantify the problem, CSW has compiled statistics of turnover, by department, of permanent secretaries, secretaries of state, ministers, and director-generals. The most obvious finding is of high churn among perm secs: only the Treasury has retained its top official since the 2010 general election, whilst eight have had three or more. The PM may be famously reluctant to reshuffle top ministers, but his focus on continuity in political leadership does not extend to the civil service.

Indeed, in contrast to the situation under Labour in 1997-2010, secretaries of state are now markedly more permanent than permanent secretaries. Still, they’re not all that stable: only half of the 16 ministerial departments have retained their secretary of state since the election. DfT has seen the biggest turn-over at the top level (see graphic above), having worked its way through secretaries of state Hammond, Greening and McLaughlan (pictured below top row), and permanent secretaries Devereux, Homer and Rutnam (pictured below bottom row).


Below that very top level, turnover – among ministers as well as officials – has been very high. Half of the departments CSW studied have had as many director-generals leave since 2010 as they had posts in that year. And only three of the 16 departments have lost fewer junior ministers than they have posts.

This high turnover runs across the departments. Most have DG replacement rates between 50% and 150% of the number of DG posts. The Cabinet Office looks like an outlier, with a DG turnover figure of 233%, but closer analysis reveals that it’s a consequence of the department being re-tooled to do different jobs: as House of Lords reform and AV fell by the political wayside those jobs disappeared, to be replaced by new positions focusing on the workings of the civil service.

It’s interesting to see exactly how turnover’s changed over time: it was relatively low in 2010 and 2011, but exploded in 2012. Nine out of 16 departments of state saw their permanent secretaries replaced in 2012, and director generals were similarly fleet of foot. This wave of departures has, to an extent, continued into 2013. Talbot suggests that this “bunching” may be because senior officials tend to time their departures so as to give election periods a wide berth; and Jenkin agrees that there was a “pent-up demand” to leave. But the main explanation for 2012’s turnover figures probably lies in the timescale of departments’ reactions to budget cuts: having planned and prepared major change and redundancy programmes during 2010 and 2011, many departments executed them during 2012.

Behind that 2012 spike, though, lies a wider problem of high turnover that has, for example, weakened accountability and continuity in the management of major projects (see Permanent Secretaries round-up by MPA chief Dr Norma Wood). Jenkin argues for a change in the civil service’s remuneration structures: “If we want people to stay in post for longer, then we’re going to have to pay them to do so,” he says. “It is ludicrous that we will pay higher salaries for fresh people from outside, but be unable to pay more to the people we want to keep.” Jenkin believes that the cap on civil service pay is making it hard to compete with the private sector for talented staff; it militates against promoting people in-post, he says, in turn leading to high churn.

McCrae, however, points out that many of those leaving management jobs pop up again in different departments: they’re moving across Whitehall, not heading for the exit. And CSW’s research did identify certain names cropping up again and again in the higher echelons of different departments, whilst plenty who rise through the ranks of one department end up as permanent secretaries of another. This reflects another aspect of UK civil service culture: as Talbot notes, “the tradition is: if you stay in a job for more than two years, you’re clearly failing. You’re expected to move about”.

McCrae backs reforms to encourage promotion in-post. However, he insists that turnover isn’t a problem in itself: it’s only worrying if it damages the organisation. And certainly, many of the government’s policies will have required departments to shed senior staff: the civil service can’t become less top-heavy, reduce layers of management, or reorganise itself for a world of smaller budgets without losing a lot of managers. What would be worrying, though, is if the rate of churn doesn’t now fall: with most organisational change and redundancy programmes well past their peak, a continued rapid exodus of senior staff would suggest that departments are fast losing expertise, experience, and links with stakeholder groups. The UK is proud of its permanent civil service, which is supposed to bring exactly these benefits: if we’re not making full use of the system’s potential advantages, the losses will be borne by civil servants, ministers, and the public alike.


Read the most recent articles written by Civil Service World - Read the May 2022 edition of Civil Service World


Share this page
Partner content