Publication Machinery of government Public finances 30 October, 2023

Civil unrest: a portrait of the Civil Service through Brexit, the pandemic and political turbulence

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This paper is authored by Amy Gandon.

Civil unrest is based on interviews with 50 current and former civil servants, mostly below SCS. Rare in Whitehall analysis, it provides a first-hand account of their experience over the past few years of relative turbulence.  

In giving voice to their daily experience, Amy has shown that many of the criticisms most frequently levelled at Whitehall are in fact shared by those working within it - and the report reveals a palpable sense of frustration and disillusionment. 

An overly bureaucratic and incrementalist culture is stifling policy innovation. Too many senior leaders are seen as self-interested, and senior leadership roles as unattractive. Insularity and a lack of diversity result in groupthink. A tick box, competency-based HR system is actively undermining the meritocratic principle, leading to ‘shadow’ systems for promotion and failing to address poor performance. And short-termism is undermining robust and high-quality policy development and decision-making.  

Simultaneously, these systemic issues are compounded by a reactive and appearances-driven political environment and, in some case, deteriorating relations with ministers, as well as a sense of being undervalued. 

This has all contributed to people leaving the civil service, believing they can have a more rewarding and impactful career elsewhere, and risks others following suit. Without committed, talented people, Whitehall cannot hope to effectively serve the government of the day and meet the challenges facing the nation.

The insights of the paper’s participants make the case for fundamental reform that involves civil servants themselves.