The civil service has a people problem – you can help us find the solutions

I refuse to believe there aren’t solutions to tackle civil service's talent and poor performance problems, especially among the people most affected by them
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By Joe Hill

07 Mar 2024

Whitehall faces unprecedented challenges. But it won’t rise to them if the civil service fails to prioritise exceptional talent and tackle poor performance. We at Reform are looking at exactly these issues, and we want to hear from you.

Last month the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which outlined the foundations for civil service appointments, turned 170 years old. If the authors could travel through time, we hope they would recognise the same values of “integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit” are alive and well today. But it’s a mark of failure, not success, that many of the processes the civil service uses to practice these values are still stuck in the past.

Whitehall has an acute people problem. The number of days lost to sickness absence has risen to an average of 8.1 days a year, a 12-year high, according to new figures. By comparison, the rate for the general population is 5.7. This is a symptom of a workforce where many feel unhappy at work, disengaged from serving the public, and like their efforts don’t matter. Tackling this means ensuring that the institutions public servants work for are taking their people seriously.

There are many factors that affect the health of a workforce – skills and training, pay and benefits, workload, how valued you feel. For this research, we are focusing on how to ensure the right people are brought into the civil service, how to ensure talent rises up, and how to ensure poor performers are moved on. In all of these areas we know there are significant problems.

Whitehall continues to be relatively impermeable to external talent joining. One of the clearest takeaways from the Covid-19 Inquiry so far is that there wasn’t enough specialist talent on pandemic preparedness in the civil service, not just in the immediate crisis of the first lockdown, but in the years that should have been spent planning for it. Sufficient expertise hadn’t been brought in on virology or vaccine development, but also on the operational impacts of closing schools and borders. It looks like limited progress has been made since the Baxendale Report from 2015 on the process to attract talent into the Senior Civil Service.

Having talented individuals in an organisation doesn’t always mean they rise to the top. Lord Browne’s report from 2014 assessed that “the civil service… does not yet plan and manage individual careers strategically, and as a result loses talented people or fails to develop them”. And other options exist – earlier this year, Sir Alex Chisholm told the Public Accounts Committee that for specialist roles (such as digital and cyber), individuals could say “I’m doubling my pay going somewhere else”.

And are poor performers moving on? In November’s NAO report on the civil service workforce, it was revealed that three of 16 Whitehall departments don’t even know how many of their staff are underperforming, and two-thirds had no record of what happened to people classified that way.

Having been a civil servant in a handful of Whitehall departments, I know how different it feels to work in a team which is high-performing, and one where any amount of high-performance on your part wouldn’t really matter. It’s demoralising – a feeling echoed by many civil servants interviewed in our paper last year with former civil servant Amy Gandon, who told her “[poor performers] never get sacked, which is quite demotivating when you are a hard worker, and you see that happening”.

I refuse to believe that there aren’t solutions to these problems out there, especially among the people who are most affected by them.

That’s why Reform are announcing our upcoming research project on talent and performance in the civil service and launching this survey with Civil Service World. We want to hear views from current Whitehall civil servants on what’s happening on the ground, in areas which aren’t covered by the People Survey. And there are details to get in touch if you want to share your story anonymously – we are conducting interviews and focus groups through March and early April.  Please do reply, share and contact us at if you would like to talk.

You can fill in the survey here

Joe Hill is policy director at think tank Reform. A former civil servant, he worked at departments including HM Treasury and the Home Office


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