High turnover of civil servants ‘costing government up to £74m a year’

16 Jan 19

Excessive staff turnover in the civil service is costing the taxpayer up to £74m a year in recruitment, training and lost productivity, according to a think-tank.

The churn of civil servants has also lead to “failures on some of the government’s biggest priorities”, including Brexit, a report by the Institute for Government released today said.

Tom Sasse, report author, said: “Rapid staff turnover contributes to failures on some of government’s biggest priorities.

“When multi-billion pound projects can cycle through project directors with dizzying speed and whole policy teams turn over almost entirely in just a couple of years, the workforce model is clearly broken.”

It was “no surprise”, he added, that universal credit was “plagued with issues [as it] went through five project directors in three years”.

Brexit was one of the factors driving high staff turnover as staff seek opportunities for promotion with the creation of new jobs, the IfG found.

Margaret Hodge MP, former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “At the moment civil servants do not stay in post long enough to develop real expertise and see through policies and projects.

“This has caused countless past failures and leaves the civil service ill-equipped to tackle the biggest challenges facing government today, including Brexit.”

She called on the government to reform the civil service’s career structure and to start “valuing people who see things through”.

UK civil servants – especially those in senior roles – change jobs much more frequently than their counterparts in other countries or private sector organisations, the IfG said.

This leads to “disruptive leadership changes” and “weakened institutional memory”.

The report blamed Whitehall’s open internal jobs market, which means civil servants have to move to a job on a higher grade to get a pay rise. It also does not stipulate that employees have to be in a job for any length of time before applying for another.

Managers have little means to encourage people to stay with them, which “pits departments against one another in a war of talent”, the IfG said.

Chris Matheson, Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said the high civil servant turnover was a result of “nearly a decade of Conservative cuts, stagnant pay and now the pressures of Brexit”, which “have created a highly unstable work environment, with high staff turnover being one of many negative outcomes”.

A Cabinet Office Spokesperson responded: “Figures show that more than half of civil servants feel a strong personal attachment to the department in which they work - but there is always more to do to support our workforce.

“That is why we are developing measures to address turnover when it is higher than expected, including introducing pay and career development incentives.”

They added: “The Brexit negotiations are a priority for the government and we will continue to deploy staff with specific expertise, from across government, to achieve the best result.”

The spokesperson added that new policies were put in place in 2018, which removed pay increases for lateral moves within the civil service.

These IfG findings echo warnings of the current chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier’s  last year about the effect of high staff turnover on the civil service.

Excessive attrition rates for staff have also been an issue in other areas of public sector employment, including prisons and social care recently.

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