What is staff turnover?
Staff turnover is the proportion of employees who leave an organisation over a given period of time, expressed as a percentage of the total workforce.
It is important to distinguish between officials leaving the civil service as a whole (‘external turnover’) and those moving to another department, team or role within it (‘internal turnover’). This includes those on secondment or loan from one civil service organisation to another.
Civil service external turnover is relatively low compared to other organisations. However, internal civil service turnover is high, harming productivity, undermining the quality of policy advice, disrupting major projects, reducing ‘institutional memory’ – subject knowledge gained in a role – and incurring unnecessary expense. (Read our methodology for more on how we calculate staff turnover.)
How high is staff turnover in the civil service?
Between March 2021 and March 2022, 13.6% of the civil service workforce (67,880 staff) either moved between departments or left the civil service entirely. This is an increase of 5.2 percentage points compared to the previous year, when it decreased by 1.9 percentage points. Total turnover is now at its highest level in over a decade.
The reduction in turnover during 2020/21 was driven by fewer staff leaving the civil service than in previous years, while the proportion of staff moving between roles in different departments remained much the same. This was probably the result of economic uncertainty associated with the pandemic, which led to fewer job opportunities and incentivised people to remain in stable employment, rather than a reaction to specific initiatives within government. It was part of a wider trend across the public sector during the pandemic. For example, turnover of social workers also decreased over the same period by nearly 2%.
But this trend has been reversed over the last year, with the proportion of officials leaving the civil service increasing significantly above pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, the proportion of staff moving between roles in different departments within the civil service has nearly doubled, from 2.5% to 4.8%.
At the end of March 2020, just 18% of civil servants intended to leave the civil service in the next 12 months or sooner – the smallest proportion recorded since 2011. By March 2021, this had increased to 20% of officials.
Fewer than half of current civil servants intend to stay for at least three years, suggesting continued appetite to move in the medium term.
What proportion of staff turnover is due to civil servants moving between different departments?
In 2021/22, about a third of staff turnover was due to officials moving between different departments within the civil service, either permanently or as part of a temporary loan or secondment.
Internal turnover remained consistent at around 2.5% between 2017 and 2021, but over the last year doubled to 4.8% of the civil service workforce. This is much higher than the previous peak in 2016/17, which was associated with organisational changes following the EU referendum, such as the creation of new Brexit and international trade departments.
Internal turnover is now nearly five times higher than it was in 2010/11, when only 1% of the civil service workforce left for a role in another department.
But these figures are a major under-estimate of civil service internal movement, because they only record internal transfers between departments and functions, not the far higher number of transfers that happen within departments, for which there is no publicly available data.
How does staff turnover vary between departments?
Bigger, operational departments tend to have lower turnover, and particularly lower internal turnover, than smaller, policy-focused departments. For example, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Home Office (HO), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) all have total turnover lower than 11%.
Bucking this trend, the small, policy-focused Foreign Office (FCDO) also has historically low levels of staff turnover – although this increased significantly last year, following the pandemic and the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development in September 2020.
In contrast, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Cabinet Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Treasury (HMT), the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) all have total turnover higher than 15%, the median (2021) turnover rate in UK private sector services organisations.
In most departments, total turnover increased over 2021/22. The exceptions were DLUHC and HMRC in which it decreased by 2.8 and 1.8 percentage points respectively. In most cases, this increase in total turnover follows a decrease during 2020/19. Nonetheless, in several departments turnover is now higher than it was before the pandemic.
Last year total turnover at the DHSC increased from 14% to 51%, driven principally by 1,300 of its staff transferring to another department or function within the civil service. This excludes the 6,500 staff who transferred either to DHSC, the NHS or the newly created UK Health and Security Agency as part of a machinery of government change following the dissolution of Public Health England in October 2021. So these internal transfers likely reflect DHSC winding down some of its pandemic functions, following a period of significant recruitment as the department mobilised in response to Covid-19.
The Cabinet Office lost more than a quarter of its workforce in 2021/22. Almost three quarters of this was staff moving between departments and functions within the wider civil service.
After a significant decrease in staff turnover at the Treasury last year, it has now nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Lack of staffing continuity in the Treasury hinders its ability to oversee departmental spending with a strategic, long-term view, and to effectively steward key areas of the economy.
Smaller, policy-focused departments such the Cabinet Office, DCMS and DLUHC tend to have higher turnover than bigger, operational departments such as MoD, DWP and the Home Office. This may be because staff working in policy roles tend to move between departments and policy areas within the civil service more frequently than those in operational and administrative roles.
Smaller, policy-focused departments also tend to be based in London, making it easier for civil servants to transfer from one to the other. For instance, in March 2022, 92% of Treasury staff were based in the capital, as were 89% of DCMS staff. Civil servants who work for bigger operational departments like DWP and HMRC are dispersed more evenly across the UK.
Less than 1% of officials in the Scottish and Welsh governments move to a role elsewhere in the civil service each year, suggesting that the location of civil servants, and their work for different governments, affects the internal movement of staff.
Government has recognised excessive turnover as a problem for parts of the civil service since at least the 1968 Fulton report. The Civil Service Reform Plan 2012 acknowledged it a major problem, and the civil service Workforce Plan 2016–2020 said it must ‘ensure people are encouraged to develop deep expertise, not move too frequently from job to job’.
In 2021, the Cabinet Office included addressing the turnover of permanent civil service staff in its Declaration on Government Reform and as a key metric in its Outcome Delivery Plan. To help with this, the civil service is introducing ‘minimum expected assignment durations’ for all newly advertised senior roles to ensure that projects are led to completion. While not a contractual requirement, this is intended to set a clear expectation for senior officials, when applying for roles, how long they should remain in post.
The government also plans to implement capability-based pay, starting with the senior civil service. However, while pay influences high staff turnover, other factors such as prospects for promotion are important too.
Some government ‘functions’ have started to achieve significant improvements in workforce management. For instance, the project delivery function has worked with the Major Projects Authority to successfully reduce turnover of senior responsible owners of projects. Most functions have now published ‘career pathways’ – frameworks which provide clear information about career development, roles and skills to help staff to plan their careers in more structured ways.
- Sasse T and Norris E, Moving On: The costs of high staff turnover in the civil service, Institute for Government, 2019, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/moving-on-staff-turnover-civil-service
- Atkins G, Kavanagh A, Shepheard M, Pope T and Tetlow G, Performance Tracker 2021: Assessing the cost of Covid in public services, 2021, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/performance-tracker-2021
- Michael Carty, Labour turnover rates: XpertHR survey 2022, retrieved 1 August 2022, www.xperthr.co.uk/survey-analysis/labour-turnover-rates-xperthr-survey-2022/166442
- Lord Fulton, The Civil Service Vol. 1 Report of the Committee 1966-68, HM Stationery Office, 1968, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.civilservant.org.uk/csr-fulton_report-findings.html
- HM Government, Civil Service Reform Plan, GOV.UK, 2012, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-service-reform-plan
- Cabinet Office, Declaration on Government Reform, GOV.UK, 2021, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/declaration-on-government-reform
- Cabinet Office, Outcome Delivery Plan: 2021 to 2022, GOV.UK, 2021, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-office-outcome-delivery-plan/cabinet-office-outcome-delivery-plan-2021-to-2022
- Cabinet Office, ‘Government Evidence to the Review Body on Senior Salaries on the Pay of the Senior Civil Service’, 2022, retrieved 2 August 2022, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1066913/2022-04-01_Government_Evidence_to_the_SSRB__2022-23_.pdf
- Nickson S, Thomas A, Vira S and Urban J, Pay reform for the senior civil service, Institute for Government, 9 November 2021, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/senior-civil-service-pay