Despite drastic cutbacks and downsizing across Whitehall, civil service staff morale is higher than you might think. So what does it all mean?
The 2012 Civil Service People Survey results, published today, provide the most comprehensive and up to date picture of how ‘engaged’ civil servants currently feel at work.
The survey had 297,000 responses across 97 departments and agencies. It asks over 50 questions building up a detailed picture of what civil servants think about issues as diverse as their work, pay and benefits, the quality of leadership and management of change and inclusion and fair treatment.
Despite the cuts, downsizing and major changes taking place, there has been a modest but significant increase in the benchmark indicator of ‘employee engagement’. Following a slight dip over the last two years, the score is up two percentage points to 58%, which is the same as in 2009 before the major cutbacks were announced and started to be implemented.
So how optimistic should the civil service be? And do the findings mean that keeping staff motivated is not as big a risk as we suggested in our recent report Transforming Whitehall?
The results are a boost for the civil service and a credit to leaders and line managers in exceptionally difficult times. Sir Bob Kerslake is right to say that ‘this year’s results show some great strengths.’
Leading and managing change effectively is the single biggest driver of staff engagement and the results today show a solid upward trend. The biggest improvements here are in staff having confidence in the decisions made by senior managers (up 4 percentage points); feeling that change is well managed and believing that senior managers are behaving in line with their organisation’s values (both up 3 percentage points).
In our report, we highlighted the critical importance of keeping staff committed through major changes and focused on the emerging ‘say-do’ gap between what leaders say and how they behave. So this is very welcome news.
The other notable areas of improvement were in the quality of management and learning and development. Again, our report highlighted the variable quality of managers within and across departments and we also encountered concerns that the cutbacks meant some staff didn’t feel there were real opportunities beyond their current role so these too are important.
It is worth remembering that the civil service is still in the relatively early stages of cutbacks with austerity measures lasting until 2018, according to the IFS. This snapshot may be off the back of a misplaced feeling that the worst is over when further headcount and cost reductions are virtually inevitable.
With that in mind, it is worth remaining cautious. Whilst improving, the overall satisfaction with leadership of change is still very low indeed. Satisfaction with pay and benefits has continued to go down (now 30%) and only 37% feel low performance is effectively dealt with in their area. All of these could have a real impact on the quality of staff that the civil service retains (and is able to recruit) over the coming years.
Perhaps most importantly, around 20% of staff still want to leave their organisation as soon as possible or within the next 12 months. The interesting question is what proportion of these are the best staff or the low performers the civil service needs to manage more effectively.
We recommended that permanent secretaries should be held to account generally on how they are supporting staff through difficult changes and specifically on how they are responding to the results of the People Survey. It was encouraging for the IfG to be able to award Mark Lowcock and his team at DfID with our most recent Inspiration for Government award for their compelling work on staff engagement. It is also promising to see that others right across the civil service also felt their leaders and managers were increasingly taking action on these results.
There is a long way to go and there are bound to be some mixed stories when the results for individual departments begin to emerge. But, the picture overall looks to be a positive one which deserves recognition. The key is whether they can continue to improve over what will be more tough times ahead. And, as we highlighted, keeping those leading the major changes in departments motivated is a major challenge in itself.
James Page is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, working on transformation in Whitehall and ICT in government. This post first appeared on the IfG blog