Ministerial churn and priority shifts hit staff morale – senior civil servant

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The “relentless” pace of ministerial changes and shifts in policy focus at Government departments have driven a drop in confidence in leadership among civil servants, MPs have been told.

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm suggested policy briefings to the media ahead of official Government announcements have also played a role in undermining morale.

Mr Chisholm was speaking on Thursday to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee about the results of the latest civil service people survey in 2022.

The survey, conducted in a year when two prime ministers quit and dozens of ministers resigned, showed overall satisfaction with department leaders had fallen from 58% in 2021 to 54%.

Asked to outline the factors driving this change, Mr Chisholm said “local” leadership is more important than departmental leadership.

But he said London-based policy departments had been particularly affected by shifts in policy focus, and referred to the challenges of managing changing priorities such as Brexit, Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine .

Mr Chisholm, who is also chief operating officer of the civil service, said the “sheer rate of change and the pressure of going through the gears” had a significant impact on staff morale.

Alex Chisholm
Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm (PA)

Mr Chisolm also emphasised the importance of changes being “planned and well co-ordinated” with clear communication and consultation with staff.

“When you read on the front page of a newspaper about a new government statement, which seems to affect you personally, that obviously is less positive for the change process,” he said.

Rishi Sunak scrapped plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs shortly after becoming Prime Minister last year, instead asking departments to look for “effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets”.

Mr Chisholm said the push to reduce the workforce would have been “fresh in the memory” of those who took part in the survey, which was conducted in September and October.

The survey found the fall in morale varied by department, but the Cabinet Office registered the lowest score of all departments on staff engagement.

Asked to explain this, Mr Chisholm said staff had felt “discombobulated” by not being sufficiently involved in frequent changes.

Mr Chisholm said this was “partly always a feature” of the Cabinet Office because as a “central point of government our working priorities have to change”.

“That had been very much a feature over that last year,” he added.

The FDA civil service union announced in April that it would be balloting on strike action over pay for the first time in 40 years.

The survey showed salary satisfaction had dropped by 10 percentage points to the lowest level since the survey began 14 years ago.

Turnover of staff was at its highest level in a decade, with 14% of the workforce either moving between departments or leaving the civil service.

Of those who wanted to leave their jobs, 54% said it was because they wanted better pay and benefits.

Mr Chisholm said the pay offer in place at the time of the survey had not kept pace with “other public sector groups” and civil servants’ concerns had been compounded by the rising cost of living.

“All of that would have contributed to people saying ‘I asked to be paid more. Therefore, I am a bit disappointed by the action taken’.”

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