Staff turnover is on the rise — here’s how governments can prevent it

Retain staff by making senior leaders accountable and giving HR a more strategic role

High turnover in the British civil service is endangering key policies and wasting up to £74 million ($95 million) a year in lost productivity, a new report claims.

The government needs to change how it rewards and promotes employees to prevent civil servants from jumping from role to role, the Institute for Government think tank said in the report released yesterday.

Some departments, like the Treasury and Cabinet Office lose a quarter of their staff a year. The Treasury’s welfare policy team “changed almost entirely” in three years. And across Whitehall, managers tend to stay in their jobs for less than two years.

But the report is of interest to governments far beyond the UK, too, who struggle with the issue. It makes recommendations for reducing staff churn, including giving HR a more strategic role and making senior managers accountable for their department’s turnover.

Why is turnover so high in UK government?

In 2010, the government put a cap on pay rises. That means if a public servant wants a higher salary or promotion, they have to change roles.

This has created an internal jobs market that “pits departments against one another in a war for talent”, the authors write. Managers, who can’t offer pay rises, have little means to persuade employees to stay.

But high churn is also the result of the UK civil service’s generalist model, which tends to value those who move through the ranks quickly, rather than those who stay in the same position to develop experience and expertise.

Departments lose people at a higher rate, and with them goes their institutional knowledge. This can affect the quality of policy recommendations made to ministers.

The Institute for Government warns that the UK’s generalist model is unfit for the challenges today’s public service faces.

It gives three recommendations to improve staff retention:

1) Ensure civil servants are compensated fairly

Before 2010, nearly all UK civil servants received automatic pay raises, regardless of performance. Now, they have to change jobs if they want a higher salary.

It’s not just the UK public servants facing pay freezes— government workers in Canada, Australia and France have also seen their wages stagnate. Rewarding those who do well or acquire more skills with better pay would incentivise people to stay in their jobs.

2) Make senior leaders accountable for reducing churn

Few countries require government departments to publicly publish data on staff turnover.

This, the authors write, means that leaders don’t have to take the issue seriously. If they are forced to publish key workforce data, leaders will be held accountable for staff losses.

3) Give HR a stronger role

In many governments, from the UK to US, HR is in charge of payroll, job advertisements and background checks. They need to take on a more strategic role, the authors suggest, to address long-term staffing needs, retention, talent management, organisational culture, skills and performance.

With greater power, HR departments could build a career progression system that allows some staff to move through a range of roles, and others to stay where they are and build expertise.

Canada’s government, for example, has introduced several innovative HR programs, like the Free Agents and Talent Cloud, which allow highly skilled public servants to choose projects that match their interests and abilities. This gives talented public servants freedom and hiring managers access to a pool of pre-vetted, skilled employees.

Shifting to a model that values specialists as well as generalists isn’t an easy change for any civil service. But rewarding public servants who build on their experience and expertise is the first step to keeping hold of talent. —Jennifer Guay

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