IfGs annual Whitehall stocktake reveals impact of political turbulence on civil service performance

From: Think Tanks
Published: Tue Jan 31 2023

How political turmoil has contributed to record levels of staff turnover and declining morale in the civil service.

On the eve of the largest civil service strike in years, the IfG's annual Whitehall stocktake reveals how political turmoil has contributed to record levels of staff turnover and declining morale in the civil service.

Published today, Whitehall Monitor is the IfG's data-driven assessment of the UK civil service, analysing how it has changed and performed over the past year and setting out its priorities for the future.

This 10th edition explores how high levels of ministerial turnover and changing policy priorities affected civil service performance, as well as the impact of tight budgets and disputes over pay on the workforce. It analyses how the civil service handled the fallout from the partygate scandal, and what this meant for the officials' relationships with ministers in the context of weakening public trust in both.

With the government planning to reduce spending on departmental administration by 8% by 2024/25, departments' pay-bills are expected to be cut even more starkly following a forecasted 25% fall over the next two years. This means civil service leaders need to manage increasingly tight departmental budgets, stretched more thinly by inflation, while maintaining public services and dealing with crises. Whitehall Monitor warns that departments will find this difficult to manage through pay restraint, as this winter's industrial action from thousands of officials has shown.

Key analysis in the report includes:

  • Civil service turnover has hit its highest level in at least a decade: between March 2021 and March 2022, some 13.6% of civil servants either moved between departments or left the civil service entirely.
  • Turnover between departments, having remained stable at around 2.5% between 2017/18 and 2020/21, has almost doubled to 4.8%.
  • The morale of the civil service workforce declined in 2021 and 2022 for the first time since 2015, and was further weakened by a year of strained relationships between ministers and officials.
  • A minority of civil servants (41%) now report that their organisation motivates them to help achieve its objectives, down from 51% in 2021.
  • Civil servants' median salaries at each grade have reduced in real terms by between 12% and 23% since 2010. This makes it harder the civil service to attract and retain talented officials, and will make pay restraint more difficult in the context of industrial action. The government's proposed pay award limit of 2% is low compared to the private sector and broader public sector.
  • Progress has been made in some areas of reform - such as relocating civil servants around the UK - but efforts in other areas stalled in 2022.
  • The government has made steps to professionalise the public appointments system - but it needs to do more to prevent delays and improve transparency.

Key recommendations in the report include:

  • The need for ministers to build momentum behind the government's reform agenda in 2023, after having stalled last year.
  • Publishing more civil service policy advice, analysis and evidence.
  • Improving Whitehall policy making by spreading the use of experimental methods (such as multi-disciplinary teams, red teams and methods of citizen participation) and evaluation across government.
  • Taking a long-term approach to civil service efficiency, and being prepared to invest to save, rather than relying on headcount targets.
  • Giving the civil service a clearer responsibility to steward government capability and provide long-term policy advice, and putting the civil service on a new statutory footing, with clearer objectives for the head of the civil service.
  • That any headroom on pay should be used to boost pay for specialist roles and offer financial support for civil servants in precarious financial positions.

Lead author, Rhys Clyne (senior researcher) said:

The start of 2023 is a difficult moment for civil service leaders trying to manage the workforce. Pay restraint will be tough in the face of widespread industrial action and sustained real-terms pay cuts at every grade of the civil service. It is already having an effect on the civil service' ability to recruit and retain top talent. Morale is getting worse, turnover is at record highs and the relationship between ministers and officials has come under strain. Tight departmental budgets after this financial year will make it more difficult for departments to manage overstretched and in-demand public services. And administration budgets, used to pay civil servants and resource departments, are set to be cut further.

In this context reform is vital. The government has stalled on this so must revive efforts to strengthen the civil service in 2023. Those efforts should include a new statute for the civil service, to give civil servants clearer a responsibilities for the stewardship and management of government capability.

Company: Think Tanks

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