Working to make government more effective

Analysis paper

Retention in public services

How can government keep workers in the NHS, schools and police?

A teacher addressing a class
Schools in England typically lose one in ten teachers within a year, rising to three in ten after five years.

Public services are responsible for keeping the public safe, healthy and well educated. This relies on the work of millions of people across the country. But that workforce is not a happy or stable one. Workforce problems persist across public services, from loss of experienced staff to high turnover and vacancies. Taken together, these act as a drag on performance – which in most cases is still worse than before the pandemic, and substantially worse than in 2010.

The government’s focus has been on recruiting more staff: 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more GPs and 20,000 more police officers were all key pledges in the Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto. However, new recruits will only ever make up a minority of total workforces, and take time to acquire the knowledge, experience and organisational memory that makes public services tick.

Public service effectiveness depends on keeping existing workforces skilled, motivated – and, crucially, in post. Yet relatively little attention has been paid to retention. This report addresses that gap by assessing the scale, impact, causes and solutions to retention problems in three key public services: the NHS, schools and the police.

The main causes of unhealthily high staff exits

  • Pay in public services has become less competitive.
  • Workloads are high.
  • Public service jobs can involve unsociable hours, particularly the shift patterns required to run NHS and police services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
  • Leadership and management can be poor.
  • Staff can experience bullying and discrimination.
  • Societal norms have changed. Flexible working arrangements have become increasingly popular but rare in the public sector.
  • Goodwill is dissipating. Morale is low and many staff feel undervalued, citing post-2010 pay decisions, the stresses of the pandemic, and the sense that there is no help on the horizon.


  • The government should produce workforce strategies for all public services.
  • The government should make better use of pay review bodies (PRBs).
  • PRBs should make more use of their freedom to consider and make recommendations.
  • The government should more regularly consider the impact of its policy decisions on staff workloads.
  • The government should tackle the barriers to effective leadership within public service organisations.
  • Departments should monitor compliance with the roll-out of flexible working initiatives and support local leaders where extra support is needed.
  • Departments should seek to better understand the costs of poor retention in the public services they oversee.

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