APS leaders want more staff mobility, but the UK civil service demonstrates the downsides

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday January 23, 2019

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While Australian Public Service leaders worry there might be too little staff mobility in their workforce, new research on the United Kingdom civil service is a reminder that one can have too much of a good thing.

“At a moderate level, staff turnover is healthy and refreshing,” begins a recent report from the UK Institute for Government.

“But when every year, crucial departments like the Treasury lose up to a quarter of their staff; when most senior managers leave their roles every two years, disrupting work and leaving ministers to maintain institutional memory; and when, in just three years, multi-billion pound projects can cycle through five project directors and whole policy teams turn over almost entirely, staff turnover in the civil service is not healthy but debilitating.”

“When, in just three years, multi-billion pound projects can cycle through five project directors and whole policy teams turn over almost entirely, staff turnover in the civil service is not healthy but debilitating.”

The prevailing view in Canberra is that the APS would benefit from more staff movement between agencies, as well between the public service and jobs in other sectors, and that moving around is also a key avenue of professional development that enhances the career prospects of individual public servants.

About 2.5% of APS staff moved between agencies in 2017-18, and nearly three quarters have only ever worked for one. This annual mobility rate has been roughly constant for the past 15 years, with the majority transferring at the same level rather than getting a promotion. The APS commission suggests it would be “significantly higher” if it included people moving around inside the same entity, but consistent data is not captured.

The 2016 APS workforce management review, led by businesswoman and New South Wales Public Service Commission advisory board member Sandra McPhee, said public servants should no longer expect “a job for life” in the APS. It envisaged greater mobility as teams of “agile employees” who work rapidly on problem-solving or design projects then “disband and move onto new challenges” somewhere else.

In the latest State of the Service report, the commission quotes Department of Industry, Innovation and Science secretary Heather Smith, who told a public administration seminar last March that more movement between agencies could only improve the ability of federal agencies to provide “well-informed and integrated advice to government”.

The new APS commissioner Peter Woolcott commented in October that “mobility can foster diversity of thinking, contestability of ideas and assist in capability development – lifting the overall capability of the APS, not just the individual” but also observed there is danger in excessive churn.

“Too much or poorly targeted mobility can also have an adverse impact and we can lose subject matter expertise,” he said in his address to the APSWide conference.

“Deep expertise is and will remain crucial to government and must be a core capability of the APS. This is particularly so in those specialised agencies, often sitting outside departments, including those with specialised regulatory functions.

“We also need to ensure a skilled cohort of program and project managers. A core capability given that the APS is moving increasingly back into delivery.”

The pitfalls of too much mobility

In Whitehall, the situation is reversed. The IfG report observes there have been constant complaints about excessive turnover for over half a century, and the game of musical chairs has sped up in recent years after the introduction of an open internal jobs market and pay rates being frozen and capped in 2010.

The thinktank says some departments see 20-25% of staff go elsewhere each year, and that in six ministries, 40% of senior executives have only held their role for a year on average, compared to three years for permanent secretaries.

Comparisons with the UK civil sevice could offer some insight into how the APS might encourage further mobility, but the report mainly warns of four problems this could create if not managed carefully.

“First, it is very expensive. We estimate that excessive turnover in departments costs the civil service between £36 million and £74 million each year in recruitment, training and lost productivity. But this figure only represents a small part of the problem.

“Second, excessive turnover harms Whitehall’s ability to make policy – a core task. Whitehall struggles to retain knowledge and expertise in key policy teams. The Coalition Government lost almost all of its experts on homelessness in two or three years after 2010, for example.

“Ministers, who themselves often move around quickly, frequently complain that they know more about a policy area than the officials who advise them. The quality of policy advice suffers for lack of experience and expertise.”

That last problem is not so much of an issue in the Australian government, where the frequency of ministerial reshuffles almost certainly has more impact on policy, but it does show some of the pitfalls that could arise if the desire for mobility in the APS eventually goes too far.

The IfG study also found that implementation of policy suffers when civil servants are moving about all the time, with excessive executive churn leading to “muddled project management and missed targets” as well as budget blowouts.

“When project managers change very quickly, it also undermines accountability because those responsible for failures have often left by the time Parliament calls departments to account,” the report observes.

“The IfG study found that implementation of policy suffers when civil servants are moving about all the time, with excessive executive churn leading to ‘muddled project management and missed targets’ as well as budget blowouts.”

The problem is most apparent in the UK Treasury, where about a quarter of staff leave every year, usually because they can get paid more, which also highlights the tricky issue of restraining public service pay while attracting and retaining high quality staff, especially with in-demand skills.

“Some spending review teams, which oversee departmental spending, experience 90% turnover from one review to the next, while the department struggles to retain staff in key areas such as financial services.”

The Institute for Government says the UK civil service has developed “a culture which values those who move quickly above those who develop expertise and see through projects” and departments are constantly engaged in a “war for talent” that undermines the service’s performance as a whole.

“Movement of staff around Whitehall appears to be largely unplanned; driven by individuals’ perceptions of how they can most quickly advance their career rather than where the organisation needs skills and experience.”

One recommendation is to rethink the behavioural impact of remuneration arrangements. The IfG advises neither automatic yearly pay rises regardless of performance, nor strict caps that mean finding a new job is the only pathway to a bigger salary, but “targeted pay progression” that rewards people more for improving their value as an employee, while staying in the same role.

It also calls for civil service leaders to take charge of the situation through modern career progression and succession planning systems, driven by stronger HR teams. The report argues senior leaders need to manage their workforces more actively according to a clear understanding of requirements, and be held accountable through more transparent metrics.

Strong and effective workforce management avoids uncontrolled mobility, according to the IfG. Instead it “rewards the right mix of specialist skills, policy knowledge and generalist capabilities; and creates a culture that encourages some officials to move through a wide range of roles, while ensuring others stay in post longer, build deeper expertise and complete key projects”.

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