The civil service faces its biggest challenge since the Second World War with its smallest workforce since the Second World War.

Some departments – notably Defra – face Brexit with much smaller workforces than in 2010. Only six departments are led by the permanent secretary that was in post at the 2015 general election. The civil service is older and more concentrated in senior grades than in 2010, which could pose skills and management challenges. It is more diverse than in 2010, but women are still under-represented at senior levels, progress on ethnicity and disability in the senior civil service has plateaued, and a greater percentage of civil servants are based in London. The lack of data makes some of the progress on ethnicity and disability difficult to measure, and also makes workforce planning difficult – we don’t know the professions of one in ten civil servants. Despite recent upheavals, civil servants in nearly all departments are more engaged than in 2015 – engagement levels have fallen considerably at the Department of Health – but particular challenges, such as pay, remain.

The civil service faces Brexit with its smallest staff since WW2.

There were 384,950 civil servants (full-time equivalent) in September 2016. This is down 18.5% since the Spending Review in 2010, and means the civil service is at its smallest since the Second World War (civil service employment peaked at 1,164,000 in 1944).

Departments face Brexit in a variety of shapes (see grade, below) and sizes. Four – DWP, HMRC, MoJ and MoD – have departmental groups of more than 50,000 civil servants; only three others (Home Office, BIS – the new departments are not yet reporting on their new boundaries to the ONS – and DfT) employ more than 10,000. In the case of BIS and DfT, this is (in BIS’s case, was) largely down to big agencies (Land Registry at BIS; DVLA and DVSA at DfT).[1]

Reductions have affected departments differently since 2010. Looking only at the departments themselves and ignoring their other organisations, three have undergone reductions of more than a third: DWP, Defra (expected to face a particular challenge around Brexit, given how many of its responsibilities are currently covered by EU law) and DCLG, where the workforce has been reduced by 42%. Four departments actually grew in headcount – DfID, DECC (which no longer exists), the Cabinet Office and DfT. In many cases, reductions were deeper at the start of the last parliament, with numbers stabilising or even increasing towards the end of it.

Only six departments are led by the same permanent secretary in post at the 2015 general election.

Twelve Whitehall departments face the challenges of Brexit with permanent secretaries who took up their posts only after the 2015 general election. The exceptions are DfID, DfT, DCMS, the Home Office, DWP and DCLG. Only Robert Devereux was a permanent secretary at the time of the 2010 general election (at DfT, rather than his current role at DWP).

Two of the three new departments have already experienced or will soon experience changes: BEIS started life with joint permanent secretaries (Alex Chisholm and Martin Donnelly) before Chisholm took sole charge, while Antonia Romeo will succeed Martin Donnelly as permanent secretary of DIT in March 2017.[2]

Only three women are currently in charge of departments, down from four in May 2010 and from eight for half a week in March 2011.[3]

The civil service is more concentrated in senior grades and older than in 2010.

In 2016, 38% of civil servants were working in the most junior grades (administrative assistant and administrative officer, or AA/AO), down from 47% in 2010. Grades 6 and 7 – directly below the senior civil service (SCS) – now account for 10% of civil servants, up from 7% in 2010. The percentage of civil servants right in the middle – senior and higher executive officers (SEO/HEO) – has also increased, from 20% in 2010 to 24% in 2016.

Those departments directly delivering services to the public, such as DWP, MoJ and HMRC, have a higher percentage in the AA/AO grades, although in all three of these, that percentage has fallen since 2010, with a higher percentage at the next few levels up. Other more policy-focused departments, such as DfID, DECC, the Cabinet Office and DCMS, have their highest concentrations in grades 6 and 7, and this has become more pronounced since 2010. These changes may reflect some digitisation of services or processes – the former permanent secretary of HMRC has previously talked about ‘diamond-shaped’ departments emerging from this – and recruitment freezes.[4]

In 2016, 40% of the civil service was over 50 years old – that hasn’t changed much since 2015, but is up from 32% in 2010. Only 10% of civil servants are aged under 30, down from 14% in 2010. This ageing process is probably due to recruitment freezes and could have an impact on the types of skills coming into the civil service.

The percentage of women at all grades has increased, but remains under 50% at the most senior levels.

Gender balance at the top of the civil service has improved – rising to a high of 40% in 2016, up from 34% in 2010. However, this is lower than the percentage of women across the civil service as a whole (54% in 2016). It is also lower than any Fast Stream intake since 1999 (49.6% of Fast Stream appointments in 2015 were women); the gender balance in Fast Stream appointments may feed into the pipeline for future senior civil servants.

Women outnumber men at more junior grades, and remain under-represented in senior roles. This is true not just of the senior civil service, but at grades 6 and 7 (45% female) and SEO/HEO grade (48%) too. Women outnumber men at the most junior AO/AA grade (59% female) and at EO level (57%). On the plus side, the percentage of women making up SEO/ HEO, grades 6 and 7 and the senior civil service has increased since 2010.

Representation of ethnic minorities and those declaring a disability has improved, but stalled at senior levels.

In 2016, 11.2% of civil servants were from an ethnic minority (where ethnicity was known), up from 10.6% in 2015 but below the 14% of the UK population that were from an ethnic minority at the 2011 Census. However, only 7% of senior civil servants were from an ethnic minority in 2016, down slightly from 7.2% in 2015. After significant progress was made in promoting ethnic minorities in 2014, numbers have plateaued. But Fast Stream recruitment is ahead of the rest of the civil service – in 2015, more than 14% of appointments were from an ethnic minority.

Disability representation follows a similar pattern: the percentage of civil servants declaring a disability across the whole civil service has increased (to 9.2% in 2016), but figures are much lower in the senior civil service, and progress seems to have stalled over the past two to three years (only 4.7% had a disability in 2016, up slightly from 2015 but below the 2014 figure of 5%). Again, the Fast Stream performs better, with 13%-15% of appointments between 2008 and 2012 going to those declaring a disability, but this has since fallen to below 10%.

The civil service is putting a lot of effort into increasing diversity – including the Talent Action Plan and ‘champions’ at senior levels.[5] Despite improvements, there is still a long way to go. The civil service also faces challenges in measuring its progress, given the large percentage of respondents not declaring their ethnicity (12.8%) or disability status (13.1%), to say nothing about the lack of responses on LGBT status and the difficulties of measuring socio-economic background.[6]

The percentage of civil servants based in London has increased since 2010, although only two departmental groups have more than 90% of their staff in London.

As of March 2016, 78,820 civil servants are based in London. That constitutes 19% of the home civil service, more concentrated than the 18% in 2015 and 16.5% in 2010. Civil servants based in Scotland and Wales account for a higher percentage of the workforce in 2016 compared to 2010, while in all English regions the percentage has fallen over this period.

Departmental groups (the department itself and the executive agencies and nonministerial departments for which it is ultimately responsible) vary in where they employ their civil servants. DCMS (98%) and HMT (96%) are the only departmental groups to employ more than 90% of their staff in London (though the now-abolished DECC, 89%, came close). The four largest departmental groups – DWP, MoJ, HMRC and MoD – have large workforces across the country and (with Defra) employ fewer than one in five of their staff in London (fewer than one in ten at DWP and MoD).

Notable regional employers include:

  • DfT, 64% of whose workforce is based in Wales (mainly at the DVLA in Swansea)
  • DfID, with 42% of the UK-based workforce in Scotland (DfID has a headquarters in East Kilbride)
  • DCLG, with 31% of staff in the South West (most at the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol).

At FCO, 28% of group employees work in the South East, mainly at FCO Services (the FCO’s trading fund). There are also a few thousand FCO employees in the South West – at GCHQ in Cheltenham – but these are no longer included in the published statistics for security reasons.

We don’t know the profession of one in ten civil servants.

In total, 65% of civil servants work in operational delivery posts; just over 4% work in policy posts. But we do not know what profession 10% of posts belong to – this rises to 100% in DfT and MoJ, and 98% in DCMS. Departments lacking this data are likely to find workforce planning more difficult.

More than 75% of civil servants in HMRC, DWP and HO are in operational delivery posts, while more than half of civil servants in HMT, DH and FCO are in policy roles. The new digital, data and technology profession accounts for 21% of Cabinet Office and 9% of Defra posts.

Morale has risen in nearly all departments since 2015, but fallen dramatically at DH.

The Civil Service People Survey, in which 280,000 civil servants answered more than 60 questions during October 2016, is a key indicator of organisational health. Despite various upheavals – including a change of government and Brexit – civil servants across most of Whitehall are more engaged in 2016 than in 2015. The biggest climbers were Defra (six points) and DWP (five points), while HMRC continues its climb from a low of 34% in 2010 to 47% in 2016.[7]

However, engagement has fallen by a record 12 points at DH. Its scores have fallen across all the themes in the survey since 2015, with the biggest fall being in ‘organisational objectives and purpose’ (from 76% to 61%). These falls may owe something to a recently completed redundancy round. They are not irreversible; DCMS and DfE have both recovered in similar situations.[8]

Departments vary considerably in their scores on particular themes: 38 points separate the best (HMT) and worst (DH) performers on leadership and managing change, and 37 points on organisational objectives and purpose (HMT, BEIS). Particularly striking is DExEU’s performance: it compares well against the rest of the civil service on the whole, and comes top in the ‘my team’ theme, although it comes bottom in ‘resources and workload’ and ‘learning and development’ (not surprising for a brand-new department). Altogether, the People Survey suggests DExEU has done a good job in establishing itself and motivating its workforce; its management will now be concentrating on focusing the organisation on the task at hand.[9]

The lowest-scoring theme across the whole civil service is ‘pay and benefits’ (31%, up one point from 2015). The new Department for International Trade comes bottom (21%), while DfE is five points above any other department on 45%.

This is despite the fact that the median salary at DfE is not the highest at any grade. MoJ tops the senior civil service pay charts, on nearly £84,000, which is £13,000 more than the lowest department, HMT. The Treasury has the lowest median salary at EO level, too, while DWP is bottom at all the other grades.

With a continuing pay freeze, departments must find other ways of motivating their staff. The need to bring in specialist skills – for example, in digital, data and technology – may yet require changes to pay scales, reward structures and career paths.[10]