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Moving On: The cost of high staff turnover in the civil service

Staff turnover is weakening the civil service

Moving On

Excessive staff turnover in the civil service is costing the government up to £74 million a year in recruitment, training and lost productivity. The indirect costs of turnover are even higher, including disruptive leadership changes contributing to major projects like Universal Credit going awry and weakened institutional memory damaging policy development in key areas.

Published today by the Institute for Government Moving on: the costs of high staff turnover in the civil service finds that civil servants in the UK – particularly senior civil servants – change jobs much faster than civil servants in other countries or private sector organisations.

Several departments, including the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, lose a quarter of their staff each year. Across Whitehall, managers stay in post less than two years. The Treasury’s Welfare Policy Team and MHCLG’s Homelessness Policy team changed almost entirely in just three years. Rapid change leaves civil servants ill-equipped to advise ministers on crucial decisions.

The report also finds that Brexit is driving higher turnover across Whitehall. While staff have had to be found to work on Brexit, some are taking on new roles as a promotion opportunity before moving on quickly. This is both bad for Brexit work and disruptive for the areas these staff leave behind.

The report argues that excessive turnover is a result of Whitehall’s open internal jobs market and a cap on pay which means officials have to change roles to get a pay rise. Anyone can apply for any job at any time and managers have little means with which to encourage them to stay. This pits departments against one another in a war for talent. Movement of staff is largely unplanned, driven not by where the Government needs skills and experience but by the desire of individuals to advance their career prospects. Overall, there is a culture of valuing generalist civil servants who move quickly above those who develop expertise and see through projects.

The report makes recommendations to combat excessive turnover, including giving managers the ability to award pay increases to high performers and changing HR practices to ensure the civil service rewards those who stay in post longer, build experience and see through projects.


Since publishing the report we have been advised by the Cabinet Office of the following corrections: 

On page 11 we say ‘on average senior civil servants stay less than two years in post’ but this should read ‘on average senior civil servants have been in post for less than two years’. Also on page 11, we say ‘seven of the departments for which data was available lost 30% or more of their senior officials each year to other departments’: this figure also includes people leaving the civil service.

Civil servants
Institute for Government

Related content

19 DEC 2018 Online event
19 December 2018

Is Whitehall’s workforce model broken?

At this event, the Institute for Government launched a new report, Moving on: the costs of high staff turnover in the civil service.