The civil service continues to grow following the Brexit referendum. ‘Generation Brex’ is younger, more likely to be based in London, more senior in grade and slightly more diverse than before. Turnover remains a problem for government, especially in departments dealing extensively with Brexit.
Staff numbers have grown in every quarter since the referendum in June 2016 on the UK’s membership of the EU, as the civil service deals with the challenges of Brexit. One in every five of the jobs cut since the 2010 Spending Review have now been replaced. Not all of these staff will be working on Brexit, but many of the departments most affected by it – such as the Department for International Trade (DIT), Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – have seen the biggest rises.
A higher percentage of civil servants are working in more senior grades now than in 2010, as departments that focus on policy staff-up for Brexit. Meanwhile big delivery departments around the country have continued to reduce staff numbers, especially at the most junior levels. The policy departments have a much younger workforce, including at the most senior levels, than the delivery ones. Gender balance is continuing to improve, as is diversity – but the percentages of senior civil servants who are women, disabled or from an ethnic minority are still lower than these percentages in the civil service as a whole and in the working age population.
The civil service is making some progress on improving its professional skills, such as commercial, analytical and project delivery skills, across government. However, with most current permanent secretaries having risen to the top via policy- or economics- focused careers, it is clear more needs to be done to diversify pathways to the most senior roles through other professions.
The civil service continues to suffer from excessive turnover. In the past year some departments – including the Treasury – lost two in every five of their civil servants either to other departments or to roles outside the civil service.
Civil service staff numbers have risen every quarter since the EU referendum
There were 404,160 civil servants in September 2018, nearly 20,000 more than in June 2016.
Numbers fell by nearly a fifth between the 2010 Spending Review and June 2016, from 472,550 to 384,260, although they never quite met the expectation set out in the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan, that numbers would drop to 380,000 by 2015. Staff levels have increased in every one of the nine quarters since the referendum as the civil service prepares for Brexit. This is the equivalent of one in every five of the job cuts made between 2010 and the referendum being reversed.
Unsurprisingly, many of those new hires have been made by the departments most affected by Brexit:
- Numbers are up by nearly 70% at DIT (630 staff).
- Staff numbers at Defra, one of the departments most affected by Brexit, have increased by 45% (960 staff). Defra has added staff in every quarter since the referendum, having cut numbers by a third between 2010 and June 2016.
- The workforce of BEIS, estimated by the National Audit Office (NAO) to have more Brexit-related workstreams than any other department, is up nearly 40% (1,020 staff).
- At DCMS, fourth on the NAO’s list of the departments with the most Brexit workstreams, numbers are up by over 75% (460 staff). DCMS is also staffing-up to cover the expansion of its remit to include issues such as the digital economy.
Although total numbers of staff have fallen since 2016 at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the department says it has hired 2,300 extra civil servants to deal with Brexit. These increases may be obscured by staff cuts elsewhere in the third- largest government department.
It is impossible to know exactly how many civil servants are working directly on Brexit. In August 2018, the then Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, put the number at 7,000, with funding available for 9,000 more. In December 2018, civil service chief executive, John Manzoni, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that 10,000 civil servants were working on Brexit, with up to 5,000 more ‘in the pipeline’; a few days later it emerged 600 civil servants at the Department for International Development (DfID) might be redeployed elsewhere in Whitehall. Reports in January 2019 suggest up to 4,000 civil servants from five departments will move to new roles to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. The Treasury estimates that a third of its staff are working on Brexit. Further increases are likely in other departments, especially in the case of a no-deal Brexit; the permanent secretary of HMRC told Parliament that the 2,300 extra staff already recruited could rise to 5,300 in such a scenario.
Staff numbers have not risen everywhere. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) stands out for having had a 20% fall (400 staff) in headcount since the referendum, and a fall of more than 40% since 2010. This is largely the result of a redundancy round in late 2016, even though the NAO estimates that it has the third- largest number of Brexit workstreams.
Not all rises in staff numbers are due to Brexit. Increases at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) – the largest absolute increase since the referendum (6,000) – are partly because of the recruitment of more prison officers, following years of cuts and rising violence in prisons. The third-largest percentage increase (nearly 46%, 1,700 staff) has been at the Department for Education (DfE), which is likely to be due to its changing role. The academies programme has brought many schools out of local authority control and into a direct relationship with the department. The department is also recruiting in response to new priorities following machinery of government changes in summer 2016, when responsibility for higher and further education was transferred from BEIS. This increase is in addition to staff who transferred directly to DfE following this change (300 to DfE, and 640 who moved from the Skills Funding Agency to the Education and Skills Funding Agency).
The department dealing directly with Brexit, DExEU, remains the smallest, with around 690 staff. That number excludes civil servants in the Fast Stream, the Government’s graduate recruitment programme, who are counted as part of the Cabinet Office – as of October 2018, DExEU hosted 131 generalist Fast Streamers, more than any other department.
Most departments are much smaller than the four largest delivery departments: the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), MoJ, HMRC and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). These departments and their agencies account for nearly two thirds of the whole civil service (64%); when the next largest department, the Home Office, is added in, that figure rises to nearly three quarters (72%).
More civil servants are in more senior grades as cuts continue at junior levels
Staff numbers fell at all levels of seniority in the civil service between 2010 and 2012. Since then, the trends have been different at different grades.
There are now more civil servants than in 2010 in the senior civil service (and equivalent jobs, such as health professionals, military personnel and senior diplomats); in grades 6 and 7 (usually more experienced officials with significant policy responsibilities); and senior and higher executive officer level (SEO/HEO, officials with specific policy responsibilities). Although these numbers started bouncing back before 2016, the trend has been more pronounced since the referendum as departments – particularly those based in London and focused on policy – prepare for Brexit.
Only at the most junior levels – among administrative officers and assistants (AOs/AAs) – have cuts continued every year since 2010. Roles at this level include administrative support and operational delivery roles, such as prison officers. Taken with the increase in numbers at more senior levels, civil servants in AA/AO roles account for just over a third of all civil servants (36%) in 2018, down from nearly half (47%) in 2010. Cuts started again at the next level up (executive officer/EO) between 2017 and 2018.
In some cases, this may be due to the digitisation of public services. A lot of research in this area has noted that departments should begin by digitising labour-intensive, back-end processes. Lin Homer, then the permanent secretary of HMRC, told the Public Accounts Committee in 2015 that “the numbers of the most basic of our jobs are reducing” and that “many departments are turning diamond shaped because of the impact of technology”.
These overall trends mean that, in most departments, a larger percentage of the workforce is in senior grades now compared to 2010. This is true at more policy-oriented departments – their shapes being variations on kites, coffins or funnels, such as DfID, BEIS and DCMS – but also at delivery departments, including the domes and pyramids of HMRC and MoD.
Some departments are increasingly resembling diamonds in their grade profile, such as Defra and the Cabinet Office. At the latter, this is largely due to the department taking over responsibility for Fast Streamers, who enter at higher executive officer level (they were previously counted under HMRC).
The civil service is hiring younger staff again – but over-50s still predominate
Although the effects of age are understudied compared to other measures of diversity, older workforces may face problems related to bringing in new skills and losing experience and expertise as people retire; in younger workforces, there is likely to be a higher turnover of staff.
In recent years, there were very few younger civil servants entering departments. As the civil service froze recruitment to reduce numbers from 2010, the percentage of people aged under 30 fell from 14% to a low of 9% in 2014. But as those freezes have thawed, younger people have been hired again – 13% of all civil servants are now under the age of 30 – bringing new skills and perspectives.
Nonetheless, those aged over 50 continue to make up the bulk of the civil service – 41% in 2018, up from 32% in 2010. The 40 to 49 age group has been particularly squeezed: they made up a third of the civil service in 2010, but represent only a quarter now. The median age is 46, up from 44 in 2010 (although the younger recent hires have brought it down from 47 in 2015 and 2016).
Departments have very different age profiles, some of them facing the problems of ageing and others the perils of youth. The size of the big delivery departments – MoD, DWP, HMRC, MoJ and the Home Office, which employ nearly three quarters of all civil servants – means that their age profiles drive the age profile of the whole civil service. Their workforces are getting older.
However, other departments – most obviously DCMS, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and DExEU – have much younger staff. These departments (and BEIS, DfID and DIT) have median ages under 40.
These trends are reflected at all levels of seniority. The big delivery departments are older at more senior grades – more than half of senior civil servants at MoD, HMRC and DWP are over the age of 50, and the percentage under 30 tends to decline with every step up in seniority. By contrast, more than half of all senior civil servants at DExEU and the Treasury are under the age of 40, and the percentage is even higher at grades 6 and 7, the next grade band down.
More of the civil service is based in London now than in 2017
Governments have long pledged to move more civil servants out of London, and this has sometimes happened (for example, the Office for National Statistics moved most of its staff to Newport). The 2017 Conservative Party manifesto and the 2018 Government Estate Strategy are the latest documents to make such pledges, the latter promising “a major, long-term programme which will move many organisations and thousands of jobs, including a full range of professions and senior grades, over the next 12 years”.
However, the opposite has happened over the past year. There are now 83,530 civil servants based in London, one fifth of the total and an increase of around 5,000 since 2017. This increase owes much to Brexit, with Whitehall departments staffing-up in preparation for leaving the EU.
Some policy departments have no or virtually no civil service presence outside London, either in the department itself or its civil service-staffed public bodies (DExEU, DCMS, DIT, the Treasury).
Other departments have a wider geographical spread largely because of their public bodies, such as the Department for Transport (DfT, with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea), or the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG, with the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol).
Others have core functions based around the country. These include the big delivery departments – Home Office, MoJ, HMRC, DWP and MoD – but also DfID, which has a large presence in East Kilbride. The dispersal of delivery departments around the UK means that some combination of the biggest five – the Home Office, MoJ, HMRC, DWP and MoD – are in the top three civil service employers in every region except Northern Ireland (where the Northern Ireland Civil Service is by far the biggest), Scotland (where the Scottish Government is the largest) and Wales (where DfT is top and the Welsh Government third).
This pattern – policy departments being more concentrated in London, delivery ones having a large presence across the country – also means that outside London government tends to employ a higher percentage of junior civil servants, while the most senior jobs remain overwhelmingly based in the capital. Two thirds of all senior civil servants and nearly half of all grades 6 and 7 are based in London. Meanwhile the north-west of England – which hosts 12% of the civil service, the most outside London – has only 3% of all senior civil servants and 7% of grades 6 and 7; by contrast, it has 15% of all AOs and AAs, the most junior grades.
Taken together, those civil servants joining after the referendum – ‘Generation Brex’ – are more concentrated at more senior levels, younger, and more London-based as cuts continue at administrative levels while departments in Whitehall hire more staff in preparation for Brexit.
Diversity is improving
“When people from diverse backgrounds are involved in creating the public services we all rely on, we get better services that work for everyone.” The civil service’s own diversity and inclusion strategy, published in late 2017, clearly states that a more diverse civil service is a more effective civil service, and sets the ambition of becoming the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020. It promises transparency in and accountability for its objectives, including a pledge to launch a diversity and inclusion dashboard (which it has done) and targets for the flow of new entrants into the senior civil service. It also promises data on socio-economic background for the first time by 2020, something the Institute for Government has called for and hopes to be able to analyse soon.
Diversity was one of the late Lord (Jeremy) Heywood’s priorities as Cabinet Secretary – a new foundation in his memory will promote diversity and innovation in the civil service. Even before the 2017 strategy was launched, a range of initiatives – the Talent Action Plan, diversity champions at senior levels, diversity objectives for permanent secretaries – had been introduced with the same aim.
The civil service is more diverse now than in 2010 on three key measures: gender, ethnicity and disability. However, despite improvement, percentages of female, ethnic minority and disabled civil servants are lower at senior level than across the civil service as a whole. The percentage of ethnic minority and disabled civil servants across the whole civil service is lower than across the working population.
The percentage of senior civil servants from an ethnic minority has risen from just under 5% in 2010 to nearly 8% in 2018 (of those who declared their ethnicity), but progress has plateaued since 2014. Only 5.4% of those senior civil servants declaring their disability status are disabled, hardly any change on 2010 (4.8%).
Progress is more obvious on gender balance in the senior civil service. In 2018, 43% of all senior civil servants, roughly three in every seven, are women, the highest-ever level, and up eight points since 2010. There has also been a marked increase at grades 6 and 7, the pipeline into the senior civil service – from 40% in 2010 to 46% in 2018. But there is a smaller percentage of women with every step up in seniority. At the very highest level, only five of the 18 main departments are led by female permanent secretaries (DCMS, Defra, DfT, MHCLG, DIT), down from a high of eight (for half a week) in March 2011 – and Dame Sue Owen is due to step down as DCMS permanent secretary in 2019. More positively, the permanent secretaries of the Scottish and Welsh governments are both women.
The largest gap between women as a percentage of senior civil servants and as a percentage of all civil servants in a department is at DWP: just under 70% of its civil servants are women, but the figure falls to around 40% at senior level. This gap has been narrowing at most departments. Only DfE and DfT have a higher percentage of women in the senior civil service than across the whole department. DCMS had previously been in that position – but over the past year, as staff numbers have increased, including the transfer of the Office for Civil Society from the Cabinet Office, its gender balance at senior level has tipped the other way.
Most civil servants work in operational delivery
Civil servants work in 28 civil service professions, which fall into three broad groupings:
- operational delivery, which supports civil servants running “frontline services that citizens use, such as processing visas, passports and driving licences”
- cross-departmental specialisms such as policy or project delivery, communications or human resources, which can be found in all or most departments
- departmental specialisms, which are unique to one or a handful of departments, such as tax at HMRC or veterinarians at Defra.
The largest profession is operational delivery, accounting for at least 41% of all civil servants. Unfortunately, the second-largest category is ‘Unknown and other’ – we currently do not know the profession of one in four civil servants. This is exactly the workforce management information departments should be using to understand their existing capabilities, and what skills they need to deliver their priorities. Instead, professions data is patchy rather than at the fingertips of those in charge.
Of the cross-departmental specialisms, which together account for at least one fifth of the civil service, the largest (all more than 10,000 staff) are policy, project delivery and data, digital and technology. The largest departmental specialisms are tax (all at HMRC, save a handful at DfID) and science and engineering (more than half of whom work at MoD, followed by DHSC and Defra).
Since 2013, the civil service has attempted to strengthen and professionalise key activities across the whole of government, allowing expertise to be shared across departments and ensuring it has the specialist skills to deliver the Government’s priorities.
At the highest level, sitting above the professions, are 12 cross-government ‘functions’. The functional delivery model is designed to:
… [ensure] a consistent approach to delivering against key government priorities through, for example, better financial management, commercial procurement, and project and programme delivery. Functions deliver a defined and cross-cutting set of services to departments, and the civil service as a whole. Each function is accountable for setting cross- government strategies, delivering expert advice, developing professional capabilities, and setting and assuring standards.
The Institute for Government has been very supportive of this agenda. One recommendation from our previous work  is that the Civil Service Board – which “is responsible for the strategic leadership of the civil service, to make sure it works as a coherent and effective whole” – should have more of a balance between permanent secretaries and heads of specialism (heads of profession or function). Representation at the top table would enhance the ability of heads of specialism both to understand the issues facing permanent secretaries, and to take action to ensure that departments have access to the support they need.
A year on, only two specialisms are represented, and then only because the specialists concerned are also permanent secretaries: Chris Wormald at DHSC is also head of the policy profession, while Jon Thompson at HMRC is also head of the operational delivery profession. Key figures, such as the chief people officer, Rupert McNeil, or the head of the digital, data and technology function, Kevin Cunnington, remain unrepresented (although McNeil has access to board papers and provides input). There has been some progress in bringing specialists into leadership groups of individual departments: for example, at the Home Office, DExEU and the Foreign Office, specialists have joined executive team meetings, which previously tended to be dominated by policy experts. The civil service has also sought to include specialists in other ways, notably through membership of finance boards.
Policy and economics are still the most common paths to the very top
Another way of ensuring that all specialisms are represented at the highest level of the civil service is to have career paths there from all professions, and from a mix of departments. The rise of permanent secretaries, in particular, can provide role models and inspiration, as well as allowing the agenda to be set from the top of departments.
Of the 22 people who currently lead departments in Whitehall and the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales – including the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill – 14 have spent part of their career in the Cabinet Office or 10 Downing Street, some way ahead of the next three departments most trodden on the path to the top: BEIS and its predecessors, the Foreign Office and the Treasury (seven).
Those stints at the Cabinet Office and Downing Street have tended to be relatively short – on average, no more than three years – suggesting it may be a necessary staging post to the very top. By contrast, permanent secretaries who have passed through the Foreign Office have tended to stay longer and gone on to senior jobs in departments dominated by foreign policy (its current permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, and DfID’s Matthew Rycroft, for example).
The Institute for Government’s Professionalising Whitehall work shows that most permanent secretaries still come from a policy and analytics background. Thirteen have served in private office – the part of a department directly supporting ministers – at some point. The late Lord Heywood spent 10 years as a private secretary, including to the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Permanent secretaries who have experience in other professional areas, such as operational delivery or finance, remain the exception. Jon Thompson is often singled out; now at HMRC, he has previously worked at the MoD, in local government, the private sector and Ofsted, in a range of finance and operational roles.
Private sector experience is similarly limited. While Alex Chisholm, Stephen Lovegrove and John Manzoni have a total of 54 years of private sector experience between them, the other 19 permanent secretaries have just 20 years’ combined experience. Twelve have never worked in the private sector.
Turnover of civil servants is a serious problem
Turnover of civil servants – whether leaving and entering the civil service, moving between departments or moving between different jobs within a department – has long been considered a problem in Whitehall. In his landmark 1968 report on the civil service, Lord Fulton complained: “It cannot make for the efficient despatch of public business when key men rarely stay in one job longer than two or three years before being moved to some other post, often in a very different area of government activity.”
Although civil servants leave the civil service altogether at an annual rate of 7.2%, lower than the comparable turnover rate in the private sector of 16.5%, this masks both the higher rates within particular departments and the impact of civil servants moving between departments.
A recent Institute for Government report argues that excessive turnover creates four key problems:
- It is expensive – through recruitment, training and lost productivity, excessive turnover costs Whitehall between £36 million and £74 million each year.
- It harms government’s ability to make policy, as knowledge and expertise is lost.
- It disrupts the delivery of major projects (for example, Universal Credit once had five senior responsible owners in a single year).
- Excessive churn in the Treasury makes it harder to ensure public money is spent well, with spending review teams (which oversee departmental spending) particularly prone to high turnover.
Rather than encouraging stability and expertise, the civil service incentivises people to move around in order to get promoted.
The Cabinet Office has the highest turnover rate, with more than a quarter of civil servants leaving the department between March 2017 and March 2018. This is partly because of its different staffing model – it relies more on secondments from other departments, to ensure that departments and the centre of government work more effectively together. Close behind are MHCLG (losing a quarter of staff each year) and the Treasury (a fifth), with the two departments created to deal with Brexit, DIT (17.3%) and DExEU (16.9%) next up.
Across all departments, senior civil servants have been in post less than two years, on average. The Cabinet Office (45%) and MHCLG (42%) had the highest rates of senior turnover between 2017 and 2018. Seven departments lost more than 30% of their senior civil servants.
These figures are for departments as a whole wherever civil servants are located. But average figures for each department can disguise the fact that the problem of high turnover is more acute in London, in policy teams and among officials working closely with ministers at the centre of government. For example, overall turnover at big delivery departments such as DWP and the Home Office is low – but turnover of the most senior officials is among the highest of all departments. Civil servants in London have a much greater choice of departments to move between to further their career. It remains to be seen whether the general move to regional hubs, with multiple departments having a presence in cities outside London, will reduce the problem or drive it elsewhere.
Civil servants’ reasons for leaving vary by department. In seven departments, loans or transfers to other parts of government account for more than half of all leavers. This includes the Cabinet Office (three in five) and DExEU, where nearly three quarters of leavers were loaned or transferred. In some cases, this might inject Brexit expertise into other departments, though still at the cost of some disruption to DExEU. The Welsh Government stands out in 2018 for nearly half of its leavers having been made redundant, and DWP for one in 10 being dismissed or discharged.
In every year since 2010, resignation from the civil service has accounted for between a fifth and a third of everyone leaving their post. It was the single biggest reason for leaving in every year except 2012, when redundancy was the main driver, at a time when civil service staff numbers were being cut.
In the past two years, the percentage of staff leaving to move to a different department has increased – in 2018, this accounted for nearly a quarter of all departures, suggesting problems of internal turnover may be increasing, partly due to departments new and old expanding in preparation for Brexit.
For the first time, we can also put a number on civil servants leaving because their role has been transferred to the private sector – more than 12,000 since 2010, including 3,500 in the year to March 2016 (8% of all leavers). Most of that 3,500 is explained by the Defence Support Group being sold to Babcock (2,000 civil servants), and some National Offender Management Service staff moving into the private sector (1,030) in 2015. This number is still likely to be an underestimate, as former civil servants return on a consultancy or contract basis to perform similar jobs to the ones they held as state employees.
The civil service could reduce internal turnover and improve retention through targeted pay progression and a more strategic approach to HR.37 But most departments will still need to manage the turnover of staff created by Fast Stream graduate placements. At present, the Fast Stream programme consists of four placements of six months each. Given the relatively small number of Fast Streamers in most departments, the effects of turnover can probably be managed within individual teams. DExEU might need a more strategic approach: it hosts more Fast Streamers – around 130 – than any other department. This is equivalent to one fifth of the full-time staff of the department.
Staff morale is an important indicator of administrative health, and the civil service’s overall engagement index score has increased over the past three years to its highest- ever level (62%). Some departments have much higher scores than others – the Treasury, DfID, the Foreign Office and DCMS on around 70%, HMRC on around 50% – but scores at most departments have risen in recent years, in spite of political challenges. This suggests that civil servants are getting on with, and remain happy in, their jobs day-to-day, and that civil service leaders are responding to the results of the survey and trying to improve their performance against it. An increase in morale may also reflect new joiners entering the civil service and its changing composition – administrative delivery staff tend to have lower engagement scores, and so the shift to a civil service with more staff at higher levels may be driving some of this increase.
Satisfaction is higher now than in 2009 across all but one of the themes, which range from how an individual’s work fits into their organisation’s objectives and purpose, to how their leadership is performing and managing change, to learning and development opportunities. The one exception is the lowest-scoring of all themes, pay and benefits (31%), which is down six points on 2009. However, the score has risen in recent years – up one point from 2017 and three points higher than its lowest ebb in 2014.
Average salaries vary considerably across Whitehall departments, with the highest median salary (DfID, £51,660) more than £27,000 above the lowest (HMRC, £24,030). This largely reflects the grade balance in different departments, with DfID having more London-based policy staff, and HMRC more delivery-focused staff around the country. The biggest range of median salaries at any grade occurs among the senior civil service, where average pay varies between £69,620 at the Foreign Office and £90,500 at the Cabinet Office.
Civil service pay is broadly comparable to other parts of the public sector – median pay is £26,610 across the whole civil service, £81,490 for senior civil servants and £19,980 for the most junior grades. This compares with £19,971 for junior police constables and £85,614 for senior chief superintendents, while classroom teachers take home between £22,917 and £67,305, depending on their seniority and location. Civil service pensions are generally regarded as “one of the most generous”.
But whereas the lifting of the public sector pay cap could lead to rises of up to 3.5% for some workers, a civil service pay cap of between 1% and 1.5% remains in place. Unions have already threatened strike action over the cap. Given the additional problems of turnover, the Government will need to find other ways to hold on to staff as it embarks on the next stage of taking the UK out of the EU, and faces challenges in the delivery of public services.