The People Survey results should be a wakeup call

The worst thing that can happen with the People Survey is that its findings do not deliver meaningful change

By Garry Graham

06 Mar 2024

The most recent Civil Service People Survey results for the civil service should be a wakeup call to ministers and officials at the heart of government and compulsory reading for any incoming government.  

The 2022 results showed that satisfaction on pay had fallen to its lowest levels since the People Survey began 14 years ago. Whilst there has been a slight uptick in satisfaction levels this year, satisfaction is still lower than it was two years ago, and lessons need to be learnt if the civil service is to be able to recruit and retain the skilled workforce it needs for the future. Some have sought to take solace in the uptick in the 2023 results, but the devil is in the detail and timing and context is everything. 

Firstly, on the timing, the People Survey ran between September and October last year. People filling out the survey, in delegated grades and covered by the remit guidance, are likely to have received the £1,500 pro rata payment shortly before or during that period of the survey. I don’t wish to sound churlish – and it was the industrial action taken by our members that helped achieved the payment – but they lose that payment this year. The positive impact will not be enduring. 

Secondly, shortly after the close of the survey, the UK government announced their arbitrary targets on office attendance. It would be naïve to think that the timing of the announcement and revised approach being taken in a number of areas has not had an impact on the sentiment of staff subsequent to the closing of the survey. 

Thirdly, the figures show a huge divergence across organisations in terms of staff satisfaction on pay and benefits. Some organisations are showing a 70+% positive response level on pay and benefits. This compares with some other organisations such as APHA and DVSA where staff satisfaction levels are running at around 15%. Unsurprisingly, staff satisfaction levels are also lowest where they believe they would be better rewarded doing similar jobs elsewhere and have external labour market analogues. 

Most tellingly, staff satisfaction is higher in areas not covered by the constraints of the Cabinet Office pay remit guidance and who have retained pay-progression arrangements. These are key lessons which should be taken from this year’s People Survey and this is a consistent pattern we continue to raise with the Cabinet Office. 

The survey is also being published at a time of historically high levels of staff turnover in the civil service. This is an issue highlighted not just by unions like Prospect but also bodies such as the Institute for Government. Whilst some level of turnover is inevitable, and indeed some will argue desirable, turnover levels in some areas are deeply worrying and impact on corporate memory, policy formulation, support for the government and service delivery. That the average tenure in post for the SCS is less than two years is simply unsustainable.  

More broadly, the statistics point to the fact that almost a quarter of staff want to leave their jobs either immediately or within the next year, with poor pay being the highest contributing reason. We know that in many areas of the civil service, employers are struggling to recruit and retain the specialist and skilled staff that they need and pay rates are simply not competitive.  

There is much that is positive in the People Survey results. The commitment of staff to the work that they do and to their teams shines through. There are however real challenges in terms of the management of change, while scores on bullying and harassment remain worryingly high. 

The worst thing that can happen with the People Survey is that its findings do not deliver meaningful change. Prospect has worked with employers encouraging staff and members to fill it out. We will be working with individual employers and the Cabinet Office to learn lessons from the People Survey results and develop action plans to address the issues highlighted. There are no grounds for complacency and for those who wish to point to the limited uptick on pay, they should know that even dead cats bounce. 

Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of Prospect trade union 

Read the most recent articles written by Garry Graham - Civil service leaders must join the chorus and stand up for their staff on pay

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