After years of reductions, civil service staff numbers are starting to climb, partly because of Brexit and partly due to recruitment at more senior grades that started in 2012. Women are still underrepresented at senior levels, though the diversity record is much worse for ethnic minority and disabled civil servants. Despite the political challenges, morale has held up or even improved in most areas and most departments – except on the issue of pay.

Civil service staff numbers have now risen for five consecutive quarters, up from a post-Second World War low of around 384,000 in June 2016 to just over 392,000 in September 2017. While some of this is in response to Brexit, it is clear that numbers at more senior grades had been rising since before the EU referendum. With staff numbers at the most junior grades continuing to fall, most departments have a greater percentage of their staff in more senior grades compared with 2010. The civil service is also older than it was in 2010, although the percentage aged under 30 is starting to rise – and some departments at the heart of government policymaking, like the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) and the Treasury (HMT), are much younger than others.

The gender balance of the civil service has improved, but women are still underrepresented at the top, including at permanent secretary level. The civil service needs to fulfil the promise of its diversity and inclusion strategy, especially in improving the representation of ethnic minority and disabled staff at senior levels. The Government has pledged to increase representation outside London, where most civil servants are based (including two thirds of all senior civil servants), although DExEU is the only department with all of its civil servants there. Progress has been made in professionalising some cross-departmental skills across government, but we don’t know the specialisms of one in 10 civil servants.

Civil service morale, as measured by the annual People Survey which asks civil servants about their ’attitudes to and experience of working in government departments’, is at its highest-ever level, increasing overall and in most departments. The only area where satisfaction has fallen is in terms of pay and benefits.

Civil service staff numbers have started to increase, which partly reflects preparations for Brexit…

Chart civil service staff numbers

In June 2016, civil service staff numbers were at their lowest since the Second World War, at 384,260.[1] However, numbers have grown in every one of the five quarters since, to 392,310 in September 2017. This still represents a fall of 17% since the Spending Review in 2010, although numbers have never fallen below the 380,000 that The Civil Service Reform Plan (2012) had expected by the end of the 2010–15 parliament.[2]

Chart percentage change in civil service staff numbers by department

The overall reductions and now recovery in staff numbers do not reflect the very different experiences of individual departments. Six – International Development (DfID), the Cabinet Office, Transport (DfT) and Education (DfE), Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Treasury (HMT) – have increased staff levels since 2010, while five departments have had reductions of a quarter or more – Justice (MoJ, down 26%), Defence (MoD, down 26%), Work and Pensions (DWP, down 34%), Communities and Local Government (DCLG, down 39%) and Health (DH, down 45%).

Some of the reduction at DH in the first half of 2013 might be due to the creation of NHS England and Public Health England, when civil servants at DH became public servants at the new bodies and were no longer classified as civil servants.[3] This highlights the limitations of the data: civil service staff numbers do not capture everyone employed by departments, such as public servants at other public bodies (see Chapter 4, on managing public spending), or those employed on a contractual basis, some of whom may previously have been performing identical roles as civil servants.

Chart change in civil service staff numbers since Brexit by department

More recent rises in staff numbers reflect preparations for Brexit. DExEU and the Department for International Trade (DIT), created in the aftermath of the EU referendum, continue to grow, but so too do other departments facing a heavy Brexit workload. Defra – which estimates that 80% of its work is framed by EU legislation – had reduced its staff numbers by 35% between the 2010 Spending Review and the referendum, but has grown by 21% since the vote.[4] The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which (according to DExEU, as reported by the National Audit Office) has more Brexit workstreams than any other department, is up 10%.[5] The Home Office (HO), which will be responsible for any new post-Brexit immigration system, has grown, but only by 4.3% so far.

Recent statements from ministers have also suggested that, after six years of overall reductions, we should expect to see staff numbers rise again in preparation for the UK’s departure from the EU. The Institute for Government has estimated that HO could need up to 5,000 more staff to handle immigration, and the Home Secretary told Parliament in October 2017 that the department was recruiting 1,200 extra immigration caseworkers.[6] HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is expected to need 5,000 new customs hires.[7] BEIS too expects growth.[8] The Brexit secretary, David Davis, has told Parliament that 3,000 Brexit-related roles have already been created across government.[9]

Chart civil service staff numbers by department

Although it is growing, DExEU remains the smallest Whitehall department – as of September 2017, DExEU had 420 full-time equivalent staff, although this does not include all employees, given difficulties counting those transferred into DExEU from other departments. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates DExEU's total headcount is around 530. Four departmental groups employ more than 50,000 civil servants – DWP, HMRC, MoJ and MoD. Given their size, these departments account for a lot of the staff reductions since 2010. Only three others top 10,000: the Home Office, BEIS and DfT; the latter two largely through big agencies (the Land Registry at BEIS, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency at DfT).

…but increases also reflect a rise in staff numbers at more senior grades since 2012

Chart percentage change in civil servants at each grade

There are now more civil servants employed in the two most senior grades of the civil service than in 2010.[10] At grades 6 and 7, the second-highest level which contains more experienced officials with significant policy responsibilities, 41,370 civil servants are now employed, up from a low of 33,610 in 2012 and up 13% from 36,630 in 2010. The senior civil service, which consists of permanent secretaries and other senior officials down to deputy director level (and here includes others at an equivalent level, such as health professionals, military personnel and senior diplomats), is also up very slightly (5,100, up from 5,070 in 2010 and a low of 4,340 in 2013), but some of this increase is due to the creation of Public Health England, which accounts for much of the rise between 2013 and 2014.

By contrast, the most junior grade – administrative assistants and officers (AA/AO), who tend to provide administrative support and operational delivery, for example benefits and job centre staff, and prison officers – has been cut by 39% and is the only grade where numbers are still falling. This group still dominates pyramid- and dome-shaped delivery departments, like DWP, MoJ and MoD. It remains the largest grade in the civil service, accounting for 37% of all civil servants (down from 47% in 2010). EO (executive officers) account for 27%, SEO/HEO (senior and higher executive officers) for 24%, grades 6 and 7 for 10%, and the senior civil service (SCS) for 1%.[11]

These numbers show that overall reductions have been driven by cutting administrative and delivery staff in departments like DWP, MoD and MoJ, who tend to be based around the country; more senior policy officials, who tend to be in London, are more numerous than in 2010. The cuts at junior levels are reflected in most departments having a greater percentage of staff in senior grades than in 2010.

Grade composition and change by department

The average age of civil servants has increased, but DExEU and HMT have a notably young workforce​

Chart civil service age distribution

The median age of civil servants is now 46, up from 44 in 2010; 40% of all civil servants are over the age of 50, up from 32% in 2010.[12] The percentage under the age of 30 is 12% – down from 14% in 2010, but up from a low of 9% in 2014. This ageing workforce is likely to have been driven by younger civil servants not being recruited to replace the jobs lost as overall staff numbers were cut from 2010.[13​]

Chart age profile of civil servants in government departments

Given their size, the larger delivery departments, which have a higher average age – MoD, DWP, HMRC and MoJ – drive the overall civil service age profile. DExEU and the Treasury have a much younger workforce than any other department, with median ages of around 31. Only DCMS (36), the Cabinet Office (37) and BEIS (38) also have median ages under 40. The ‘older’ departments tend to be getting older, and the ‘younger’ ones younger, and the senior civil service within each department tends to refl  ct its age profile: 62% of senior civil servants at MoD and 61.5% at HMRC are over the age of 50, while 55% of senior civil servants in the Treasury are under 40. DExEU had no permanent senior civil servants above the age of 50 in March 2017 (some on loan from other departments are not included in the figures, and the DExEU permanent secretary since October 2017 is over 50).[14]

The problems of ageing include new skills – such as digital – not being brought into departments, and other skills and knowledge being lost as people retire; the perils of youth include a lack of experience and higher staff turnover (DExEU’s turnover is 9% a quarter, compared to a civil service average of 9% per year).[15] But the consequences of a department’s age profile remain relatively understudied – there are few references to age in the civil service’s diversity and inclusion strategy.[16]

Gender balance is improving, but women are still underrepresented at more senior levels

Chart percentage of women in whole and senior civil service

Women have made up more than half of all civil servants since 2001. In 2017, 41% of senior civil servants (and those at equivalent grades) are women, the highest-ever level, up from just 17% in 1996 and 34% in 2010.[17​]

Chart gender balance of each civil service grade

The pipeline to the top has improved since 2010, with the percentage of women increasing in the more senior grades (SEO/HEO, grades 6 and 7, and the senior civil service). But women are still underrepresented at the most senior levels. They outnumber men in the most junior grades – AA/AO and EO – but the percentage declines with every step up in grade.

Women make up half or more of the senior civil service in three departments (DCMS, DfE and DCLG). DCMS and DIT have a higher percentage of women in the senior civil service than in the department as a whole. DExEU (33.3%), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO; 29.3%) and MoD (26.5%) have the lowest percentage of women in the senior civil service. Despite DWP having the highest proportion of female employees overall (67.3%), only 40% of its senior civil servants are women, the largest gap between these two measures.

Chart gender of permanent secretaries

Although the pipeline of female talent progressing to more senior roles has improved, it still doesn’t always extend to the very top. Only five departments are currently led by female permanent secretaries (Sue Owen at DCMS, Melanie Dawes at DCLG, Clare Moriarty at Defra, Bernadette Kelly at DfT, Antonia Romeo at DIT), down from a peak of eight for half a week in March 2011. The permanent secretaries of the Scottish and Welsh governments are also women, but the nine permanent secretaries in the Northern Ireland Civil Service are all men,[18] and there has never been a female cabinet secretary for the UK.

The five permanent secretary appointments made 2017 represented an opportunity to improve the balance – but as many of these roles went to men with the surname Rycroft (DfID and DExEU) as they did to women (DfT and DIT).

The retirement from DWP in early 2018 of Sir Robert Devereux provided an opportunity for further rebalancing – although he was replaced by another man, Peter Schofield.[19] Devereux’s departure also underlines the relative inexperience of the current civil service leadership – he was one of only three permanent secretaries in the same post at the 2015 general election.

The civil service needs to make more progress on other measures of diversity

Chart percentage of ethnic minority staff in whole and senior civil service

Although the percentage of civil servants from an ethnic minority continues to increase (to 11.6%), it remains below the UK population as a whole (14% in 2011). Progress has stalled in the senior civil service – 7% at this level and equivalent who have declared their ethnicity are from a minority group.

Chart percentage of disabled staff in whole and senior civil service

The percentage of disabled civil servants also continues to rise: 10% of all civil servants are disabled, up from 7.6% in 2010 (where disability status is known). The representation of disabled civil servants at senior level has improved slightly: 5.3%, up from 4.7% in 2016. Across the UK population as a whole, 21% of people are estimated to have a disability (18% of the working-age population).[20​]

According to the 2017 civil service diversity and inclusion strategy, ‘when people from diverse backgrounds are involved in creating the public services we all rely on, we get better services that work for everyone’.[21] The civil service leadership clearly cares about improving the situation; as well as the latest strategy, it has introduced the Talent Action Plan, diversity champions at a senior level and diversity objectives for permanent secretaries.[22] But there has been relatively little progress on improving the ethnic minority and disabled presence at senior levels. The new strategy pledges to build a dedicated ethnic diversity programme and ‘ramp up’ the existing disability inclusion programme to make the senior civil service more diverse, and to set and monitor civil service-wide targets from April 2018.[23] We look forward to seeing, and monitoring progress against, those targets.

Data on diversity is also more limited than it might be. There may be good reasons why some civil servants do not wish to disclose information, but it can make it difficult for the civil service to measure its progress; in 2017, we do not know the ethnicity of 23.4% of civil servants or the disability status of 32.8%. Even less data is available for sexual orientation and faith, and no data has been published on the socio-economic background of civil servants (apart from the Fast Stream). The Cabinet Office has started to collect data on socio-economic background;[24] we hope this will be published in the near future to highlight any problems that might exist and provide a stimulus for change. As the Prime Minister said when launching her recent race disparity audit, it is important that ‘these issues are now out in the open’, however uncomfortable for policymakers.[25]

There are more civil servants in London than in any other region

Chart location of civil servants in the UK

More civil servants (78,070) are based in London than in any other region. The East Midlands (19,260) has the fewest, although Northern Ireland hosts only 3,760 UK civil servants – the other 23,440 are employed by the separate Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). In Scotland and Wales, UK government departments continue to employ more civil servants than the devolved governments.

Since 2010, the smallest reductions by region have been in Wales (down 9%), London (down 10%) and Scotland (down 15%); the greatest reductions have been in the East of England (down 30%), South East (down 28%) and East Midlands (down 26%). However, this might obscure some transfers of staff between the civil service and other public bodies (for example, Highways England – mainly based in the West Midlands – changed from executive agency to government company in April 2015).

Chart location of civil servants by grade

London doesn’t only host more UK civil servants than any other region (around one fifth); it hosts two thirds of the senior civil service, and more than two fifths of all grades 6 and 7. The North West hosts 13% of all civil servants, and 15% of all those in the most junior AA/AO grade (more than any other region), but only 7% of grades 6 and 7, and 4% of the senior civil service are based there. The concentration of more senior grades in London underlines the fact that reductions since 2010 have largely affected administrative staff in the English regions.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to move civil servants out of London, including senior posts, ‘so that operational headquarters as well as administrative functions are centred not in London but around Britain’.[26] More recently, Chris Skidmore, the Cabinet Office minister responsible for public bodies prior to the January 2018 reshuffle, reiterated the commitment to basing any new organisations created by Brexit outside London.[27]

At present, only one departmental group (the department itself and its executive agencies and non-ministerial departments) is based entirely in London: DExEU. Three others have more than 80% of their civil servants in the capital – DCMS (99.2%), DIT (90.1%) and the Treasury (84.5%) – and a further three have more than half: the Foreign Office (74.6%), DfID (57.6%) and DCLG (50.5%).

Chart location of civil servants by departmental group

Besides the territorial offices (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), other departmental groups with large presences outside London include:

  • DfID, with 42.4% of its staff in Scotland – the department has a large base in East Kilbride
  • DfT, with 45.2% in Wales – the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is based in Swansea
  • MoD, with 35.3% in the South West of England
  • Cabinet Office, with 27.3% in Wales (largely the ONS in Newport) and 25.6% in the South East of England (the ONS has an office in Titchfield, Hampshire)
  • FCO, with 25.4% in the South East

Most civil servants work in operational delivery – though we don’t know the specialisms of one in 10

Chart specialisms of civil servants

More than half of all civil servants (around 54%) work in operational delivery.[28] Around a fifth (21%) work in particular specialisms required across all government departments (such as policy, finance and human resources), with around a seventh (14%) working in departmental-specific specialisms, like tax (HMRC) or science and engineering (MoD). However, we don’t know what specialist group one in 10 civil servants belong to – unless departments have better information which they're not publishing, this is a real problem for workforce planning.[29]

Chart specialisms of civil servants by department

Many civil servants in the biggest departments work in operational delivery, for example MoJ (prison officers at HM Prison and Probation Service) and DWP (operational support officers at Jobcentre Plus). Cross-departmental specialisms account for the majority of staff in most departments, emphasising the need for professionalisation of these areas across the civil service. Recent Institute for Government research found that significant progress has been made on this, although leadership turnover, constraints on leadership, insufficient resources and a lack of stable funding have hindered some specialisms.[30] Integrating specialists into departmental decision-making (as part of the leadership team), developing career pathways from all specialisms to senior leadership positions, bringing together the separate reform plans for diff  rent specialisms, and introducing stable funding would help ensure future progress.

Staff morale has increased across most departments and different subjects...

Chart civil service engagement index by department

Despite the uncertainty and challenges of 2017, morale – as measured by the engagement index, part of the Civil Service People Survey – has actually increased across the civil service as a whole. The 2017 score of 61% is the highest ever, up two points from 2016.

The Treasury has the highest engagement score of the main government departments, followed by DfID, FCO and DCMS. Five departments maintained their scores from 2016, while 10 improved. Four departments improved by five or more points – Defra and DCLG by five, DIT by seven, and DH by 17 (after a disastrous set of results in 2016, following a redundancy round).[31] Where scores have fallen – at FCO, DExEU and DWP - it was by only one point.

Chart civil service people survey theme scores by department

The survey asks civil servants for their opinions across nine other themes, as well as the engagement index. The Treasury – top for overall engagement – also leads the way on organisational objectives and purpose (with DfID), how civil servants feel about their work (with DCMS), and on leadership and managing change. DExEU is, as last year, joint top on how people feel about the team they work with, and bottom in terms of resources and workload (though it has gained four points on last year).

MoD is bottom on five themes, largely due to other departments having greatly improved their scores: it is now five points behind any other department on what civil servants think of their manager, and eight behind on leadership and managing change. On the latter, it is 31 points behind the highest-scoring department (HMT), the biggest range for any of the themes.

Last year, BEIS came bottom on organisational objectives and purpose, a full eight points behind the next department (and 17 behind the one after that). This may partly explain the department’s high turnover, which prompted BEIS to put exit interviews out to tender. (The department was at least open enough to acknowledge it didn’t have the information it needed.)[32] BEIS has now risen 23 points – leaving the Cabinet Office as the lowest-scoring department, as it was in 2014 and 2015. DCMS – which this year rebranded to include ‘Digital’ in its title, as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – fell by six points, the largest drop of any department on any theme.

...but staff satisfaction with pay and benefits has fallen

Chart civil service people survey theme scores

Scores across the whole civil service increased for all themes between 2016 and 2017, with one exception: pay and benefits. Most theme scores have risen steadily, and others have either risen considerably (leadership and managing change, up 10 points) or recovered after big falls (learning and development, up 10 points from lows in 2010 and 2011) to have higher scores now than in 2009. But the pay and benefits score (30%) is down seven points (although up two from a 2014 low).

Chart departmental pay and benefits satisfaction scores and average pay

There isn’t a particularly strong correlation between the median pay in a department and civil servants’ satisfaction with it – DfE has the highest satisfaction score despite not being in the top 10 in terms of median pay. DWP and HMRC have similar median salaries (£23,310 and £23,810 respectively), and are both large, delivery-focused departments. Yet their staff express quite different levels of satisfaction with their pay: 38% at DWP, compared with 22% at HMRC. With discussion on the public sector pay cap continuing, it’s worth noting that higher pay and benefits do not necessarily lead to higher satisfaction; departmental leaders will need other ways to motivate their staff.