Parliamentary committee to investigate civil service churn

MPs request years of data to support probe

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Watchdog MPs have requested five years’ worth of pay-band and appointments data from government departments to inform an investigation into civil service churn – an issue which has dogged the government digital scene for some time.

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair William Wragg signalled the pending probe in a letter to civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil, requesting comprehensive details of departments’ pay arrangements and staff movements.

Earlier this month former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude reiterated concerns over inter-departmental churn among civil servants, telling PACAC that there should be a clampdown on job-changes among senior responsible owners of major projects.

Moving department to secure a promotion and a pay rise – or even just a pay rise – has long been part of civil service culture, but is recognised to exert a toll on institutional memory. 

Research published two years ago identified government’s digital profession as an area where this problem was “especially acute”.

“After decades of outsourcing, digital skills are ‘highly competitive’ and there is a ‘Whitehall merry-go-round’ with departments poaching each other’s staff,” the report from the Institute for Government said. “The Cabinet Office recently concluded: ‘controls are not in the right place, resulting in perverse outcomes, including reduced efficiency and lower productivity’.”

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Appearing before the house of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2019, then Government Digital Service chief Kevin Cunnington revealed that the organisation’s annual staff churn had risen from 21% to 31% over the course of the preceding three years.

Cunnington attributed the high staff turnover, in part, to workers joining the agency on secondment from other government entities.

“Most of the people that leave GDS go back and work in departments – and I am entirely comfortable with that as the situation,” he said.

Maude has previously called for civil servants to be banned from switching department unless the move is demonstrably in the interests of the departments involved as well as the individual.

In his letter to McNeil, dated 19 January but published this week, Wragg echoed some of the concerns highlighted by Maude and demanded figures to give MPs a better sense of the picture on the ground.

“The issue of churn within the civil service has been raised as a significant concern in recent evidence heard by PACAC, as it was for our predecessor committee in the last parliament,” Wragg wrote.

“To help us consider the matter more fully, please provide us the committee with the following information for the senior civil service, Grades 6 and 7, and SEO and HEO grades for the last five years: 1. pay bands by department; 2. the median length of tenure for officials in their current post in total and by department; 3. the proportion of officials serving for less than three years in their current post in total and by department; 4. the proportion of those who have left their post who have (a) moved within the same department, (b) moved to another government department, and (c) left the civil service.”

Cabinet Office transparency data published last year indicated that the average period of staff employment at the now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union was just 36.5 weeks in 2018 and 2019. The Cabinet Office itself had an average employment period of 1.5 years in 2019.

At the other end of the scale, HM Land Registry had an average employment period for staff of 18 years in 2019, although even that was a dip on figures from three years earlier – when average time in service was 26.9 years.

PACAC chair Wragg asked McNeil to provide the requested data by 15 February.


Sam Trendall

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