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Declining fast stream applications are a warning sign for the civil service

The fast stream is one of the UK’s best graduate schemes.

Whitehall signpost
The IfG has argued that the civil service should do a better job of selling itself to potential applicants.

A collapse in the number of applications to the fast stream should be taken seriously, say Alex Thomas, Jordan Urban and Jack Worlidge

The US military has West Point. Barcelona F.C. has its 'La Masia’ academy. And the UK civil service has the fast stream. Consistently ranked as one of the best graduate schemes in the country and currently second on The Times’ annual list, applications to the scheme more than halved over the last three years. Some specialisms fell even more, notably science and engineering by 78% between 2020 and 2023.  7

Before sounding the alarm, it is important to note one big contextual factor. The short-sighted decision to suspend the scheme in 2022 – which was then reversed by Rishi Sunak – seems likely to have reduced applications between 2022 and 2023. A process that is slow but usually reliable was anything but, and the scheme suffered reputational damage.

But that does not explain why applications dropped from 59,603 in 2021 to 38,950 in 2022, before the suspension. And it is notable that applications have cratered during difficult economic times, when the security of the civil service would normally be most attractive.  

Competition to the fast stream is growing

Graduate surveys are imperfect ways of measuring opinion, but they all tend to show that graduates today care deeply about their work having a wider purpose and positive impact. 91% of those who responded to a survey run by – the UK’s biggest graduate career website – said they wanted their job to “make a difference”. Recruitment websites frequently label current graduates as the most “purpose-driven” in recent history.

This should put the fast stream in prime position. The civil service has a good story to tell when it comes to work that impacts on people’s lives. But the private sector has upped its game. Adverts for consultancies, energy companies and supermarkets all promote their social impact, while recruitment evenings are full of companies stressing that their staff not only make money, but contribute positively to society. For purpose-driven applicants, the fast stream is now far from the only game in town.

What’s more, fast streamers are expected to move around the country to experience different roles in a variety of departments. That can be stimulating and positive, but it also puts off applicants who may be more attracted to competitor schemes offering more flexible working patterns.

Fast stream pay is ever less competitive

Pay is another factor. Much like in the rest of the civil service, fast stream pay has reduced considerably in real terms. FDA research has shown that between 2010 and 2022, the salary for first year fast streamers increased from £27,000 to £28,000, a real terms pay cut of 31%. In 2023 a more generous pay deal was announced – including a 6.75% pay rise over two years and a new London Location Allowance. But even so, pay will remain well off real terms parity compared to 2010.  

Former Treasury second permanent secretary Sir John Kingman has compared the fast stream’s starting salary unfavourably to those in management consultancies and investment banking, warning that – even in 2020 – it was simply uncompetitive. Job security matters in a difficult economic environment, but so does salary.

The decline in applications may reflect disillusionment following attacks by ministers

One argument is that the decline in applications reflects changing party political affiliation among younger workers. But this is unlikely. Voting intentions have swung in the past without affecting fast stream recruitment. And the programme should anyway be recruiting graduates who are enthused by the process of government and the chance to work for a democratically elected administration regardless of their political views.  

More likely is that the attacks by – some – ministers on the civil service in recent years have cut through, and graduates are unwilling to commit at present to working in an environment where the institution (and some of the individuals) they work for has been undermined. The Telegraph quotes a civil servant saying “there’s such a sense of the government … hating the people who work for them. Why would you go into that?”  8

The civil service cannot be complacent

Speaking at a recent Institute for Government event, outgoing civil service chief operating officer Sir Alex Chisholm appeared relaxed about declining fast stream applicant numbers. He argued a reduced pool from which to choose had not translated into lower quality applicants, and that the current batch of fast streamers was among the most capable ever.  

Chisholm is right that, in the end, it is the quality of the people who are actually hired which matters, not the number of applications. But the decline should be considered a warning. Ministers and senior officials need to heed this and review the pay, quality and overall attractiveness of the fast stream graduate offer.

On pay for example, the IfG has recently argued for officials to receive real-terms pay rises. Civil service leaders must also explore more flexibility on pensions, and the option of recruiting fewer high quality people at higher salaries.

We have also previously argued that the civil service should do a better job of selling itself to potential applicants, ratcheting up work to improve its ‘employer brand’. Finally, civil service leaders should be reviewing the quality of the scheme, the nature of the training on offer and the benefits of the fast stream experience, listening carefully to concerns from current and recent applicants.  

The fast stream is one of the UK’s best graduate schemes, and something the civil service should be proud of. Its success is also vital for the country as a whole – providing as it does a steady stream of talent which enhances the civil service workforce. Such a big decline in applications must not be ignored.

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Sunak government
Institute for Government

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