Cutting off your nose to spite your own face is one of those idioms that rarely gets a mention these days. In the case of the government’s dealing with the civil service, however, it’s perhaps still as prescient as ever.
I was reminded of this issue last week when I attended an RSA lunchtime lecture on the US Presidential Election. At the Q&A towards the end of the event, a question was asked about the extent to which it mattered whether Romney or Obama was elected, given that the administration of influential advisors and White House staff is unlikely to change dramatically in the event of a switch in President. This is based on the common understanding that the government underlings hold nearly just as much sway as the leaders do in shaping (and certainly in delivering) policies.
Based on the behaviour of the past few years, it appears that this isn’t a rule that much of the government subscribes to. Not long ago, I published a blog post identifying a number of worrying trends running throughout Whitehall – most notably that senior civil servants had left in droves since the coalition took power. To take one example, the Department for Work and Pensions – a department dealing with some of the most significant welfare changes in years – had lost as much as 35 per cent of its senior staff in the space of just over a year.
The exodus is in part to do with the natural turnover of olds hands that occurs when a new government comes to power, and in part to do with the attractive offers of more lucrative contracts to be had in the private sector. Yet it is hard to imagine that these two factors could account for the sheer size of the civil servant loss.
Surely we also have to add to the equation the poor relationship between the civil service and the government, which the latter appears to have mishandled with predictable consequences. Witness, for instance, David Cameron’s labelling of the civil service as the “enemies of enterprise”. Or look at the survey undertaken last year by the Department of Health which found that only 14 per cent of respondents gave a positive response to the statement, ‘when changes are made in the department they are usually for the better’. Nor is this a contained problem. Private discussions with various civil servants indicate that the feelings of animosity and disillusionment are present across different departments.
The result of all of this is not only that existing civil servants – particularly senior ones – are jumping ship, it is also that the career of a civil servant becomes increasingly less appealing to the younger generation. After all, in spite of the generous benefits, how many young people want to work for an institution whose staff are publicly denigrated on a regular basis? In a recent PwC survey of 4,000 millennials (people aged under 30), 11 per cent of respondents said they did not wish to work in government and public services solely because of their image. This figure is just behind the insurance and defence industries and a couple of points ahead of the banking and capital market sector (see diagram below). This is perhaps no surprise, given that the reputation of the organisation was reported as the second most popular factor in determining whether the respondents accepted a job.
To return to the original idiom, the reason why all of this is a problem is because without a motivated, engaged and highly-skilled civil service, the government is largely hamstrung in its capacity to develop and implement effective policies. That the spate of U-turns now characteristic of the coalition government occurred during a significant downsizing of the civil service and a breakdown in relations is no coincidence. What is surprising is how such an elementary rule of thumb – that you need a decent set of foot soldiers to get the machinery of government working – is so easily forgotten in the higher echelons of power.
According to a report published last year by PwC, by 2020 the millennial generation will represent approximately half of the global workforce. The small study of graduates tries to paint a more vivid picture of what the world of work will look like in the coming decades as a new generation of tech-savvy individuals finish their studies and begin to enter into employment. In summary, the authors find that millennials “expect rapid progression, a varied and interesting career and constant feedback. In other words, millennials want a management style and corporate culture that is markedly different from anything that has gone before – one that meets their needs.”
The findings are somewhat to be expected. Most people would assume that any new generation entering the workforce would be more demanding than their forebears: the baby boomers wanted more freedom than the ‘silent’ generation; generation X called for more self-expression than the baby boomers; and now we have the millennials who are calling for even greater opportunities. Yet what makes the demands of the millennials perhaps slightly different from those of previous generations is that their expectations are not so easily accommodated by the unyielding organisational structures which are dominant within certain industries and organisations. This is particularly true of the public sector and civil service.
There is one line of the report which is rather telling: millennial workers “tend to be uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures and turned off by information silos.” If rigidity is a turn-off for the next generation of high-fliers and graduates, what does this mean for the public sector where hierarchical working patterns are the defining characteristic of organisational structures? Judging by the responses to PwC’s survey, this may already be taking a toll on the ability of government and public service organisations to reach out to the new millennials. 11 per cent of the graduates who were interviewed said they wouldn’t wish to work in this sector because of its image, a percentage that is only slightly below that of the oil, gas and defence industries (see graph below). How much of this is down to graduates’ perceptions of the public sector as a rigid place to work is not clear, but it wouldn’t be surprising to find it’s a major contributing factor.
Much of this makes intuitive sense. Millennials – and probably most white collar employees – would rather work in a dynamic, flexible organisation that allows them to flourish, be creative and have the freedom to work in their own way. As argued in a previous blog post, the UK appears to be transforming into a more entrepreneurial nation and people want a new way of making a living which runs in tandem with those aspirations. According to a rough and ready survey undertaken last year by Elance, 83 per cent of Millennials state that working independently or freelancing is a cornerstone of their career strategy. Likewise, according to research from Lloyds TSB, self-employment is becoming the reality for ever greater numbers of people. They estimate that of the 5.9 million home-based businesses currently operating in the UK, over a quarter were set up in the last year alone.
Anyone who falls into this category but for whatever reason can’t work for themselves is still going to want to vent that entrepreneurial spirit in some way or another. The concern is that the kind of dynamic organisations where this is truly possible – those where hierarchy has been levelled and where people have the freedom, for instance, to run their own projects – are few and far between in the public sphere. How much this will impact upon both their recruitment and turnover of bright young graduates is still unclear, but it would be unwise for organisations in the public sector, the civil service in particular, not to take notice of the needs and aspirations of the thousands of new young employees who they envisage forming the bedrock of their organisations in the years to come.