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.