Public sector talent

The views of Public Sector leaders

Every year, Deloitte and Reform interview leaders from across government and the public sector to inform The State of the State. This year, we have interviewed more than 50 senior figures in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, including permanent secretaries, senior civil servants, police leaders, university vice-chancellors, NHS chief executives, council chief executives, agency directors, finance chiefs and more. These interviews form the most extensive qualitative research of its kind and allow for an unparalleled view of the public sector’s central challenges from the people who know them best.

Public sector talent needs to be better managed, developed and liberated

Interviewees from different parts of the public sector described different challenges in terms of their people – but the need for talent management, leadership development and competitive remuneration were consistent themes.

A strong consensus emerged around leadership development, especially in the NHS. Several leaders saw a long-term lack of investment in leadership for health service managers which has led to the current “shrunken talent pool” and difficulties in recruitment to top jobs.

In Whitehall, departments grappling with the highest number Brexit programmes have seen rapid growth in staff numbers since the EU referendum, and one senior civil servant described the volume challenge of “absorbing thirty per cent of new people after years of a headcount freeze”. Another explained that his department’s Brexit implementation is not constrained by cash – but that the main constraint is access to people with commercial insight and project leadership experience.

Remuneration is a significant factor in the public sector’s talent challenge, with serious implications at the most senior levels. One senior civil servant told us that the gap between private and public sectors – which is most evident in senior roles – reduces the cross-over between sectors to the detriment of both. He reflected that this lack of permeability is a particular disadvantage to government as it strives to improve its commerciality, delivery and understanding of industry.

A small number of leaders in the public services told us about the unintended consequences of pensions. They said that some senior public sector people leave their jobs as soon as they can take their pensions, and pension tax arrangements have created a disincentive for progress into some of the sectors’ best-paid jobs because higher salaries would take applicants over thresholds that attract sizeable tax bills on their pensions.

Several leaders also reflected that the public bodies are attractive places to work for people seeking to make a positive contribution to society, but the sector does little to capitalise on that advantage. A senior policing figure argued that “for some organisations, it should be a walk in the park to recruit but they are failing to capitalise on their brand”.

However, others told us that a perception of risk aversion made the public sector less attractive for high performers. One NHS non-executive complained that regulation across the public sector has a stifling effect on leadership and decision-making, citing a string of regulatory expectations on his trust that instil a sense of risk aversion. A departmental non-executive warned that the difficulty of “getting things done” in the sector had a corrosive effect on talent.

Explore the views of Public Sector leaders on public sector talent:

  • The nanosecond people can take their pensions, they’re off. So there’s a mass exodus of corporate memory – in other words, people with experience. - NHS Trust Chief Executive
  • The department is going through a growth spurge. We’ve got the classic challenge of absorbing 30 per cent of new people after years of a headcount freeze. - Senior Civil Servant
  • It’s become a relatively unattractive time to be a public sector leader. The bigger issue is that it’s so hard to get big things done, and that’s corrosive. - Departmental Non-Executive
  • At a time when we need the best input from the private sector, we have made it difficult because of the wide disparity in wages. Ten years of austerity means that pay levels haven’t gone up. It’s not too bad up to Grade 7 but then the gap is pretty big. We’ve created non-permeability. - Senior Civil Servant
  • People are less about a single career now. The world has changed and policy needs to catch up. - Social Care Director
  • People are unaccustomed to making decisions. They do risk assessments, risk registers and risk monitoring, but rarely do I see a decision taken. - NHS Trust Non-Executive
  • The NHS if facing a shrunken talent pool and that’s because of a long-term failure to manage its development. - NHS Trust Chief Executive
  • There’s actually a lot of what millennials say they want from work in the public sector, but the public sector isn’t doing anything about that. For some organisations, it should be a walk in the park to recruit, but they are failing to capitalise on their brand and what they do. - Policing Leader
  • If someone goes for promotion, people say to them ‘have you thought about the tax?’. Because if they get promoted, they’ll get hit by tax on their pensions. So people don’t go for the top job.- NHS Trust Non-Executive
  • People don’t want jobs that are relentless and exhausting. They might be rewarding, but people are making a choice not to do them. - NHS Trust Chief Executive
  • Policing is getting further removed from the society we serve and the pace of reform is slowing. We’re not getting a sufficient volume of the right people, we’re not changing the employment model and we’re not reforming workforce practices. - Policing Leader
  • You often hear ‘we only interviewed one person’ for a director role. The big question is: how are we developing leaders? We need some talent management functionality. - NHS Trust Chief Executive

Qualitative research of this kind explores individual opinions, and the views expressed by our interviewees are very clearly their own. The State of the State reports on their views – it does not endorse them.

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