02 February 2012

David Cameron has, so far, avoided a major reshuffle of his ministers. But he is presiding over unprecedented churn in the civil service ranks.

There is a lot of change in Whitehall.

The parting of the old guard means that over half of the permanent secretaries in charge of departments were not in post before the election.  The civil service has a new and differently organised leadership (though the merger of the Permanent Secretary at No.10 post with the Cabinet Secretary means there is more continuity than first appears).   At the next rung down, the prime minister’s top foreign affairs team has just changed completely: he has his second National Security Adviser since the election, a post that did not exist before, a new EU/global affairs adviser and a permanent replacement for Alex Allan as Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee has yet to be announced.

It is difficult to get a real handle on the extent of churn below the top.  Our latest Whitehall Monitor tracks figures from departments – but that only looks at people moving in and out of departments.  But it shows enormous turnover at the centre with the Cabinet Office and the Treasury leading the way in losing people with turnover rates of 25-30%.

This is less unexpected in the Cabinet Office, where many staff come in from departments for a tour of duty.  Both departments pay well below the Whitehall average and have a real retention problem as people move to posts elsewhere – both in the civil service and beyond.  The most recent staff survey, reported in the Financial Times, suggests that 10% of Treasury people are looking to leave the department as soon as possible and only 12% think their pay is reasonable.

Some simple stories paint a picture of the degree of change that lies behind the big numbers:

  • The longest serving member of the top team at Communities and Local Government joined the departmental board just before the election.  Everyone else has been there less time than the Ministers
  • The permanent secretary and  three top DG roles in the Department for Education are filled by people “acting up” as the top team departed en masse before Christmas
  • The Cabinet Office work on “open public services”  has been the responsibility of four deputy directors since the election;  and the government is already on its third chief information officer
  • At a recent meeting of the Public Chairs Forum, a chair complained that he had five different “senior sponsors” since the election – with the minister providing the only continuity.

And change is not over yet. Department of Health is undergoing a complete restructure of its top team – with three new DG jobs out for open competition. Defra is about to reorganise its top structure at DG and director level, with all deputy directors being required to reapply for jobs.  In many cases these are inevitable consequences of taking out large chunks of administrative spend – there are far fewer people around to do the same jobs.

Ministers have always complained about too much change in the civil service; with people not staying in post long enough to see policies through. The need to make unprecedented cuts in administrative budgets was bound to necessitate more churn than usual. But the government will only succeed in seeing its longer term change plans through if it manages to retain and motivate good people to weather the current turbulence and stick with it.


A comment from IFG senior Fellow, Ian Magee

It’s possible that the problem may be more deep-seated, too: there was some Cabinet Office data from 5 or 6 years back suggesting that the average length of time spent in post by senior civil servants was just over 2 years. I haven’t seen anything more recent, but it’d be surprising if it were much different now, given cut backs, changing Ministerial priorities – the best people sent to the hotspots – and so on. There’s also an important point about accountability.

This is a disaster for example in the IT area, where you need continuity to understand the scope of projects; build effective relationships with suppliers, Ministers, policy people, etc, and just be prepared to see the whole thing through. That might take 4 or 5 years. As far as I’m aware the civil service has never given enough thought to incentivising people to stick with the tricky tasks; and you need powerful line support to resist the kneejerk reaction of seniors to move x to post y because it’s a short-term priority.

At the risk of sounding very old, time was when the average time spent in a policy post was 3-4 years. You weren’t very effective for the first few months, until you got to know the patch, Ministers, pressure groups, Treasury and others.

Ian Magee

Civil service churn is never a good thing for stability, efficiency quality policy making or execution.

What follows highlights a credible corporate risk I and my colleagues are witnessing as a direct result of the "brain drain" from our civil service.

During a recent visit to a large agency (10,000+ staff) to discuss general ideas around records management, processes and workflow. Agency people explained to me how business processes and critical documents are currently stored and managed, I asked how they capture the knowledge of the business i.e. where stuff is, who owns what, how does this and that process work, how is policy devised and executed, and what are the dependencies. They then alluded that currently, almost all the valuable intellectual knowledge and facts are in senior and middle ranking managers heads or in individual filing systems (paper or digital) owned and controlled by aforementioned managers with no formal policies or mechanisms to securely store, integrate, collaborate or manage the collective corporate knowledge. They also explained that some critical information is stored in a computer storage file system but without any simple end-user capability to search, update, collaborate or otherwise meaningfully engage with the content.

It seems this situation is compounded by the fact that this collective corporate knowledge is in the heads of many key people (most of whom came up through the ranks) and who are now approaching the end of their careers and/or leaving the service. The majority of new people taking up senior management and executive posts over recent years are from outside their organisation and therefore do not enjoy the “embedded collective knowledge” of decades of working practice. I have spoken to other public sector directors and service partners and they seem to concur that this is an issue.

I wonder what steps Cabinet Office are taking to address this lamentable situation?

Patrick King.

I agree very much that this issue deserves attention, and recall doing a similar calculation about lengths of tenure when I was in the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s. My more recent research, published last October by the Whitehall and Industry Group and the Ashridge Public Leadership Centre under the title "Searching for the X-factors - a review of decision-making in Government and Business" also highlighted the challenge posed by short tenure for sound decision-making. My private sector interviewees put much more stress on the value of continuity in top teams. My report recommended amongst other things a re-appraisal of the de-stabilising "four year rule" for senior civil service appointments, and more thought to be given to the composition of top teams, not individual appointments.

I'm not sure you are representing the real picture. The Civil service is in massive need for a major overhaul- with too many people and not enough real roles to do. The current turnover is a good thing - one if the major problems has always been that it has been too static creating an unhealthy status quo. There have been far to many SCS ( and other) posts created in recent years. The current departures may help reduce the levels to align with real business need. Since the last election the need for many roles has simply gone. Many administrative functions have simply been stopped and not replaced ( for example see what Eric Pickles has done as DCLG). This reorganisation is necessary for the service to realign with new priorities and some people will move or go as a result, this has always been the case though. Departments are downsizing and as old roles disappear some are becoming surplus with literally no role to perform as fewer people are needed. The scale of this is unprecedented situation and the old rules don't hold anymore ( including the 4 year one). If people don't move they are at risk of redundancy in the long term hence the churn. Francis Maud has suggested some significant structural reform is needed. He is right and his ideas are good- the current structure is stultifying.

thanks everyone: really interesting comments. Agree with M Smith on bloating of CS (esp SCS) in recent years - needed to be cut back and that inevitably means change and churn. But as others have commented there also needs to be continuity - not least beacuse knowlegde management is quite poor in the civil service. I htink that puts a premium on some really though through succession planning and sequencing - and, as I say at the end, there needs to be a bit of stability once the big upheaval has been weathered.

I am an NHS employee but have worked in the Civil Service for many years. In my area re organisation has not gone far enough. The CS does not use the skills and abilities of mainstream staff. It is hierarchical, old fashioned with little 'new blood' or radical ideas. Where I work people who want to get on get out. There are far too many generalists with too much emphasis on process rather than progress. The CS needs a constant stream of new blood from the real world, not just internal movement. In its present form it is too big a machine to enable effective change. Downsizing without radical reform is not going to achieve real change.

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