19 October 2015

Lin Homer, Permanent Secretary of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), recently told the Public Accounts Committee that government departments were moving from ‘pyramids’ to ‘diamonds’: fewer junior staff, with a bulge at the middle ranks. Is this the shape of the Civil Service in 2015? Emily Andrews, Ollie Hirst and Gavin Freeguard continue our series of posts on the Civil Service workforce.

See our explainer for our more recent analysis of the grade structure of the civil service.

Since 2010, the number of civil servants at the lowest-ranking level has decreased by almost a third…

Grade change chart

Continuing our in-depth discussion of the annual Civil Service employment statistics, today we look specifically at the grades at which civil servants are employed.

Since 2010, the number of staff at Administrative Officer/Administrative Assistant (AO/AA) level has decreased by 31%, from 246,000 to 169,000 people. Grades 6 and 7 – the second most senior – are the only rank at which there are currently more civil servants than in 2010, continuing an increase which began three years ago.

According to HMRC Permanent Secretary Lin Homer, this trend is likely to continue. The impact of technology, she told the Public Accounts Committee last month, is reducing the need for junior staff, as more administrative tasks are automated. Some of them will be promoted, she said, although there have also been decreases at the intermediate levels.

…but there are still more civil servants at this junior level than at any other.

Grade balance chart

AO/AA civil servants make up 40% of all civil servants, down from 47% in 2010. The middle ranks now take up a greater proportion of civil servants: Senior and Higher Executive Officers (SEO/HEO) are now 24% of civil servants (up from 20% in 2010), while Grades 6 and 7 are now 9% of civil servants (up from 7% in 2010).

The National Audit Office has suggested that recruitment freezes, not redundancies, are largely responsible for the decrease in civil servants since 2010. Existing staff have moved up through the grades, with fewer people entering the organisation at the most junior level. This may hold true for the Civil Service overall, although steep reductions early on in the Parliament in some departments (such as DCLG, which reduced by a third between 2010 and 2012) reflect a tranche of redundancies.

Most departments have more staff in the middle grades, but HMRC, MoD, MoJ and DWP are ‘pyramids’.

Grade composition chart

In most departments, staff are concentrated in the middle ranks. All departments but five have seen reductions in the proportion of their staff in the Senior Civil Service (SCS). The largest decline has taken place in the Cabinet Office, where the growth of Grades 6 and 7 has been accompanied by a reduction of SCS staff from 15% to 11% of the department’s workforce.

In spite of this proportional decrease, the number of senior civil servants at the CO has actually increased, from 200 in 2010 to 250 in 2015 – the only department where this has happened. The grade profile of six departments (BIS, DH, DECC, DCMS, CO and DfID) is kite-shaped, with the bulk of their staff at the second highest (Grade 6 and 7) level. DfID now has the greatest proportion of staff at this level, with 55% of the civil servants in this department at Grades 6 and 7, while the Cabinet Office has seen the largest increase – from 24% in 2010 to 36% in 2015. Only the more bottom-heavy Home Office has seen a decrease in staff at this level since 2010.

Six departments (Defra, DCLG, DfE, HMT DfT and FCO) are truly ‘diamond-shaped’, with the majority of their staff at the middle rank of SEO/HEO. Defra and DCLG now have the largest proportion of SEO/HEO staff in their workforces (46% and 44% respectively). Overall, the proportion of staff at this level has increased in ten departments since 2010.

The grade profiles of four departments – HMRC, MoD, MoJ and DWP – resemble pyramids, with the greatest proportion of their staff at junior levels. At least half of all staff in these departments are AA/AO: 73% of staff managed by MoJ are at this level. These are delivery-focussed departments, employing people in job centres (DWP), and as tax officials (HMRC) and probation officers (MoJ).

Digital transformation may make HMRC and other departments more diamond-shaped, as Lin Homer suggested: greater automation and online processing may reduce the need for administrative staff, but will require a skilled workforce (as well as significant investment) to set up and maintain the new services.

At the same time, with a tough spending review and inevitable headcount reductions ahead, it is clear that staff reductions cannot only take place at the lowest levels. Civil Service leaders will have to think hard about the capabilities they need from their leaner departments, and shape their workforce accordingly.  

Further information

Abbreviations for government departments can be found here.