What does the latest Civil Service People Survey tell us about staff morale?

Special report: The civil service is getting happier, according to its most recent People Survey. Suzannah Brecknell explores what else the survey tells us about change and engagement across government

By Suzannah Brecknell

04 Jan 2016

"We spend so much of our lives at work, we might as well feel that it’s worthwhile and fun,” the culture department’s permanent secretary Sue Owen tells CSW. This attitude may go some way to explaining why her staff are – according to the latest Civil Service People Survey – among the happiest in Whitehall. When asked “how happy were you yesterday?”, two-thirds of Owen’s staff scored their happiness at seven out of 10, or above. Only officials in Wales appear to be happier, with 72% rating their happiness above seven. 

The huge annual staff survey, published last month, showed that across the civil service, 62% of respondents considered themselves happy, a rise of two percentage points since 2014, and three points since 2012, when the survey first included this question. But while civil servants seem to be happier, they are not feeling more engaged. The engagement index measures factors such as how proud staff are of their organisation, and how much it inspires them. In 2015, this stood at 58%, one point lower than in 2014.

Leaders may have a genuine desire to promote staff happiness, but it is the engagement score which matters to their organisation. Engagement is “a really good indicator of organisational health”, says Gavin Freeguard, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG), and as such the People Survey provides a wealth of “really useful information for people running departments”. 

Engagement is also strongly linked to performance. Speaking at an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee hearing in October 2015, Clare Moriarty, permanent secretary at the environment department, explained: "I care passionately about how people feel about working within the organisation, because it drives performance. We know that organisations where people have a higher level of engagement are also organisations where performance is better.” 

A steady ship

The civil service ran its first cross-government staff survey in 2009. Since then almost all aspects of civil servants’ work have seen reform of some kind. Yet engagement has remained fairly steady: it was 58% in 2009, dipped slightly to 56% in 2010 and rose slowly before dipping again in 2015 (see box, p.15, for more details on cross-government results since 2009.)

This could reflect the professional resilience of the civil service: a characteristic praised by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood in his blog responding to the 2015 People Survey results. It also reflects the focus leaders have placed on engagement during years of reform and change. Freeguard notes that given the continued programme of budget cuts and reforms, “departments may have to manage through that engagement drop again” over the course of the next parliament.

In this regard, the civil service is in a better position than it was in 2010: engagement at the time of the chancellor’s first Spending Review dropped by 2 points; in the latest survey it has dropped just one. Civil servants may feel less daunted by major cuts and reforms, having lived through five years of change already. Or they may be more confident about how change will happen: 46% of respondents said they were confident in the management of their organisation in 2015, compared to 40% in 2009. Scores have also risen in every question of the My Manager theme which rates staff views on their line manager.

There are, however, some reasons for concern: satisfaction with pay remains low and the proportion of civil servants hoping to leave their organisation as soon as possible has risen from 6% in 2009 to 9% in 2015. The proportion wishing to stay for at least three years has fallen by 12 points to 43% though the results on those who wish to leave or stay in the next year are mixed, suggesting that these questions may reflect the fact that people tend to move between employers more regularly than they did in the past.

Managers in the civil service now have access to six years’ worth of engagement data, and experience of sustaining or rebuilding engagement after organisational change. Owen explains why engagement must remain a priority over the coming parliament:  “As resources become more constrained and limited, we need to be getting the best out of everyone. So an environment at work where people feel valued and included is obviously the right thing to do, but it also has a strong business case.”

Yet as Owen’s former boss, Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Robert Devereux, explains, this will not just be a job for senior leaders. At DWP, engagement has risen each year since 2011, and in the latest survey the department saw increased scores in all 10 themes. “This reflects the consistent effort of tens of thousands of people, at every level in the organisation, to improve the quality of leadership across teams, throughout the country,” Devereux told CSW.

He too emphasises that this is not just an altruistic optional extra, saying that rising engagement has been “central” to the department delivering complex welfare reforms, reducing operation costs and “above all improving the services on which millions of citizens depend." 

Departments in focus

Department for Culture, Media & Sport
The 2012 People Survey took place at a time when all DCMS staff were at risk of redundancy – a fact which no doubt contributed to a fall in engagement to just 35%. Further change was to come as staff moved to new buildings on Whitehall, and adapted to a hot-desking policy which meant that even the perm sec Sue Owen didn’t have her own office. 

From that 2012 low, however, engagement at DCMS has rocketed to 66%. It has had the largest rise in engagement for the last two years, and now ranks fourth in terms of engagement across Whitehall.
Alongside “senior visibility and openness” and a focus on departmental purpose, Owen cites a very practical factor in 2015's engagement rise: staff are now once again able to sit with their teams. “This year we had a big move around and we created team spaces and asked teams to get involved with personalising their areas,” she explains. This helps to give teams a tangible sense of identity, and also encourages staff to talk to others in the department about the work they do.

In response to feedback that staff didn’t know what the executive team do, senior leaders invite a staff “observer” to sit in on executive meetings and then write a blog for the departmental intranet on what they have seen. “Everybody always writes it completely differently,” says Owen, “but it’s really helpful in demystifying what we do.”  

The department has also invested in internal communications, which she describes as “incredibly important”. “Senior leaders should never underestimate how much people need to know about what’s going on across the department whether light-hearted or serious,” she says. DCMS has also focused on learning and development, following poor scores in the 2014 survey, and has launched a DCMS academy complete with a Freshers’ Week promoting various development opportunities. 

Over the next year, Owen says, the department will look at how best to allocate resources, and improve communication around its vision, particularly to new staff who will join the department as data protection and digital economy responsibilities transfer into DCMS.

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Department for Communities & Local Government 
DCLG has seen engagement rise by four points in two successive years. A spokesperson said there had been "a particularly big rise in our staff’s understanding of the department’s overall purpose and vision", adding that this reflected the "very clear objectives in our Single Departmental Plan". Over the last year DCLG has changed its IT systems and completed a move into new buildings on Marsham Street – both processes undertaken with significant staff input – and introduced a new pay offer. Managers focused on transparency when implementing this offer, and received a cautious commendation from the PCS union, which said in its briefing note that management had "sought to use at least some of the available, but limited, flexibility in a helpful manner.” In the next year, DCLG aims to focus on improving inclusion and diversity scores.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Defra is currently reforming its corporate services and is implementing a One Business strategy which aims for closer working between the department and its wider family. Before the 2015 People Survey results were published, perm sec Clare Moriarty acknowledged the impact this kind of change has on morale. She told the Efra committee: “We are trying to do something that is quite difficult, in terms of creating this more integrated whole. We are trying to do it in difficult circumstances, because everybody knows that there is a Spending Review going on.”  

Responding to the results, Moriarty told CSW that since joining the department in August she had “seen so much passion and commitment in everyone for the work they do, and so these People Survey results are disappointing" (see Fig.2). She added: "While there are a whole variety of factors behind the results, there are clearly some important messages about our leadership, management and engagement and I will be working with my executive team to ensure that we listen, and respond, to these messages across Defra.”  

Benchmark scores in focus

Learning & Development
In 2010 and 2011 the civil service was carrying out a review of learning and development across government, and then implementing a system of centrally procured, externally delivered training. The uncertainty over how training would be delivered could explain why scores fell so dramatically in 2010: detailed questions on this theme show that the proportion of respondents who felt they could access the right learning opportunities fell by eight points between 2009 and 2010. But once the new system had been introduced in 2012, scores began to rise.

Pay & Benefits
Attitudes to pay and benefits remain well below 2009 levels, but show a slight uptick in the latest survey – from 28% to 30%. While pay restraints remain in place, there are signs of change and patches of flexibility which may be driving this increase. In the Department for Transport, which negotiated some independence over how it uses its pay bill, there has been a five point increase (to 39%) in the proportion of those who agree that pay and benefits reflect performance. 

External comparisons may also play a part: although pay rises are starting to return in the private sector, research published by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development last year suggested that average wages in the UK have fallen by up to 10.4% since 2008. Civil servants, speaking to peers and friends in the private sector, may simply be comparatively less dissatisfied now than in 2010. Comparisons with other sectors may also explain departmental variations in pay satisfaction: the Treasury has one of the highest engagement scores in government, but the lowest level of pay satisfaction, at just 28%. It could be that regular interaction with peers in banking or finance sectors is colouring Treasury officials’ views on their benefit packages, despite strong job satisfaction.

Leadership & Management
Scores for leadership and managing change have improved by five points since 2009, while staff perceptions of their managers also seem to have improved. In the questions on managers, 68% now say their boss inspires them to be effective in their job, compared to 61% in 2009.

Senior managers have focused strongly on this area, and it appears to be paying off – the proportion of those saying senior managers are sufficiently visible has risen from 45% in 2009 to 53% in 2015. Demographic change may also be playing a part. According to the IfG, a higher percentage of the civil service is in senior grades than in 2010. These groups are more likely to be engaged than junior officials, and more likely to believe that leadership is good: the 2014 survey showed that senior civil servants had an engagement score of 74% and a leadership score of 69%.

Resources & Workload
This score has improved slightly, something which appears to have been driven by improved communications and information: the proportion of civil servants saying they have sufficient information to carry out their job has risen by six points since 2009, and there have also been small overall rises in the proportion of those saying they have clear objectives and understand what is expected of them. However, the proportion of those saying they have the tools they need to do their job effectively has fallen by three points to 69%, and scores about workloads and work/life balance are also down.

Bullying and discrimination
The proportion of civil servants saying they experienced discrimination in the last year rose by one point to 11% - the first rise since the survey began. Home Office staff reported the most discrimination (14% said they had experienced this in the last year) or bullying (13%), while at DCMS just 8% reported discrimination and 7% reporting bullying. But when it comes to tackling this issue Sue Owen, in her capacity as civil service diversity champion, says it will be demographic breakdown which provides the best starting point for action. Across the service, she notes, disabled and LGBT employees tend to be feel more bullied and harassed than the average – “quite alarmingly so” for disabled staff.  Some people can feel bullied or harassed by processes such as performance management, she says, adding that it will be interesting to explore how many of those reporting bullying do so because of organisational or process reasons, and how many cases are linked to identity. Owen says that this issue will be top on the agenda for the new civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil as he takes up his post in January.

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