The UK Department for Education (DfE) doesn’t have an easy mandate: it’s responsible for children’s services, education and child protection at a time when resources are stretched thin. But the department has another problem to grapple with — it can’t seem to retain staff.
“Churn is a really big challenge,” said Rebecca Johnson, People Leader at the DfE. “We see people leaving us because they don’t have acceptable promotion opportunities… Not everybody has the opportunity to progress to the next grade.”
Citizens sometimes stereotype the civil service as a “job for life”. In reality, keeping public servants from leaving their jobs can be difficult. Staff turnover at the DfE was 13% in 2016. The UK civil service average was 9%. A recent survey found that half of local government staff are considering leaving their jobs for less stressful work elsewhere.
The British government isn’t alone in this problem: the first year of the Trump administration saw 468,000 employees leave the US federal government, resulting in a turnover rate of 16.7%, and his cabinet has had a historically unprecedented rate of senior staff turnover. New Zealand has an overall government turnover rate of 16.2%, and Canada’s is 16%.
Turnover is expensive. Replacing an employee who quits costs, on average, 21% of their annual pay. Research on private sector companies found that turnover in senior management makes the entire organisation perform substantially worse.
Churn is not an easy problem to tackle — but outside of pay rises and promotions, there are proven tactics managers can take. Apolitical spoke to human resources professionals and management experts, who shared their top tips.
1. Find out why people are leaving
Too many employers miss the opportunity to understand the — often simple — reasons employees quit by neglecting to ask the right questions.
Exit interviews are standard practice across many departments, but they’re often poorly designed. To figure out why people are leaving, you need to get to the root of the obstacles they have faced. Collecting and analysing this data can be key to preventing churn.
Exit interviews should be comprehensive, and ask questions such as:
- What could have been done for you to remain employed here?
- Do you feel your job description changed since you were hired?
- How would you describe the culture of the department?
- What qualities should we look for in your replacement?
- Do you think management recognised your contributions? If not, how could recognition be improved?
- Under what circumstances, if any, would you consider returning?
2. Make education and training available to all staff
Technological change is expected to eliminate 77% of the public sector’s administration and operation roles by 2030. Public servants are eager to learn the skills necessary for the future of work — departments just have to give them the opportunity to do so.
“Within government — central, local and devolved — there needs to be a focus on opportunities for people to learn on the job. Enabling people to build skills and move into other areas would help the civil service as a whole,” said Leighton Andrews, a former education minister in the Welsh government now at Cardiff Business School.
3. Create an enjoyable work culture
Managers often overlook how important a positive work environment is, but studies show that employees who enjoy their workplace culture are more likely to stay on.
First, managers should encourage social interaction and team bonding. This helps employees work together more effectively by improving collaboration, communication and trust.
Second, managers must give employees respect and meaningful recognition. Praise is the most cost-effective way to maintain a happy, productive workforce: a simple email recognising achievements — with upper management copied — can make a big difference. Division-wide memos, awards and peer-recognition programs are also easy ways to create a positive work environment.
“There are lots of things we can do to reduce churn, one of which is being a flexible employer. Focusing on people as human beings, and their needs in terms of work-life balance, is critical. It’s about more than just the money,” said Jack Markiewicz, an organisational design consultant at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions.
In a survey of entry-level workers in the US, 83% of young people said they would be more likely to stay in their current job if they had more control over their schedules. The benefits of flexible working are well-established — from increased employee engagement to better job performance.
Employers should pay attention to employees’ personal needs and offer flexibility where possible. This can take the form of remote work, reduced schedules and on-site daycare.
5. Give employees autonomy and the freedom to experiment
When public servants are given room to experiment, they are more productive — and when public servants are productive, departments see less turnover, missed days and mistakes. Finding new ways to get public servants excited about work is no easy task, but it could help agencies save money and work more efficiently.
Some employers do this through gamification: the use of games to motivate employees or ‘nudge’ certain behaviours. Others give public servants designated time and space to take risks or experiment in their work. Allowing public servants the independence to make their own decisions can make all the difference.
“People need decision-making abilities and to feel they are working toward a higher purpose. That’s the only way to sustain high levels of engagement in government work,” said David Cotterill, former Deputy Director of Innovation at the Department of Work and Pensions.