Whitehall digital scene a ‘merry-go-round’ as departments scrap for skills – IfG report

Written by Sam Trendall on 17 January 2019 in News
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Internal competition is rife for in-demand tech talent, think tank finds

Government digital professionals find themselves on a “Whitehall merry-go-round”, with departments often poaching talented staff from one another, a report from the Institute for Government has found.

The think tank’s Moving On report examines the impact of staff turnover on the civil service. According to the report, a key driver of personnel movement is that managers often find “they have limited ability to offer staff career progression” to talented team members. This means that civil servants typically see moving to another department as the best and quickest way to get promoted.

“Senior management have little or no influence over moves, even if an official is right in the middle of delivering a complex project,” the IfG said. “This pits departments against each other in a war for talent.”

Digital is singled out as an area where competition for skills is “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 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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But the IfG found that, following the introduction of “capability-based pay progression”, the government is now, at least, better able to compete with the private sector to attract and retain digital, data, and technology (DDaT) professionals. 

“Departments are able to use the new DDaT pay framework, which is aligned to the external market, to increase pay for staff in the hardest-to-fill roles, based on objective assessments of skill,” the report said. “This approach has been designed to motivate talented DDaT staff to stay and develop their skills in their roles.”

Although the system is too new for its impact to be properly measured, the IfG report posited that the extra money being spent via the progressive pay structure should be offset by a reduced need to spend on external IT contractors. 

The report found that there are eight government departments that lose 15% or more of their staff each year. The Cabinet Office – which waved goodbye to more than one in four of its workers during 2017/18 – has the highest staff churn rate of all, just ahead of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Turnover is especially high among the 4,500 officials that comprise the senior civil service. Seven departments lost at least 30% of their SCS workforce during FY16/17. Once again, the Cabinet Office and MHCLG – both of which had an attrition rate in excess of 40% – were the worst-affected departments. 

The report said: “While some turnover of staff is necessary and healthy, current levels are damaging and cause a range of problems, including harming productivity, undermining good policy advice and disrupting major projects.”

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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