ICAEW chart of the week: Civil service numbers

My chart for ICAEW this week illustrates how the civil service has grown by 92,000 or 23% to 496,000 FTEs over the past five years.

Step chart titled 'Civil service numbers'

(First column) September 2018: 179,000 ministerial departments, 22,000 in Scottish and Welsh governments, and 203,000 in agencies and non-ministerial departments = 404,000 total number of civil servants.

(Middle column) Change: +38,000 minisministerial departments, +10,000 Scottish and Welsh governments, +44,000 agencies and non-ministerial departments = +92,000 total change.

September 2023: 217,000 ministerial departments, 32,000 Scottish and Welsh governments, 247,000 agencies and non-ministerial departments = 496,000 total number of civil servants.

The number of civil servants has increased by 92,000 or 23% from 404,000 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in September 2018 to 496,000 FTEs in September 2023, which may be surprising in the light of government rhetoric about cutting public spending.

As my chart for ICAEW this week illustrates, the size of the UK civil service has grown significantly over the past five years. FTEs in ministerial departments have grown by 38,000 or 21% from 179,000 to 217,000, in the Scottish and Welsh governments by 10,000 or 45% from 22,000 to 32,000, and in agencies and non-ministerial departments by 44,000 or 22% from 203,000 to 247,000.

The civil service is just one part of the public sector workforce, which has increased by 571,000 or 13% from 4,433,000 to 5,004,000 FTEs over the same period. 300,000 of the increase has been in the NHS (up 21% from 1,451,000 to 1,751,000 FTEs in September 2023), which after taking account of the 92,000 increase in the civil service means the rest of the public sector workforce (schools, police, army, local government and others) has grown by a relatively slower number of 179,000 or 7% from 2,578,000 to 2,757,000 over the same period.

The increases in the civil service reverse cuts in the austerity years that saw the civil service fall from 493,000 FTEs in September 2009 to 384,000 in June 2016, just before the Brexit referendum.

The UK’s departure from the EU Single Market and the EU Customs Union on 31 December 2020 has been a major driver in the increase, most prominently in the Home Office, which has grown by 15,000 from 29,000 to 44,000 FTEs. Machinery of government changes make it difficult to track the other impacts, but it is likely that another 20,000 of the increase is likely driven by Brexit, made up of small changes across Whitehall departments and individual agencies, such as the 80% increase in the size of the Rural Payments Agency (from 1,400 to 2,600), 

The individual agency with the largest increase is HM Prisons and Probation Service, up 15,000 from 49,000 to 64,000 as the outsourced probation was re-absorbed back into the civil service.

The pandemic also had a small impact on the civil service (as opposed to the NHS) with the Department of Health and Social Security more than doubling in size from just under 1,500 FTEs in September 2018 to almost 3,200 in September 2023.

Some increases are more difficult to attribute, such as the 30% increase in the size of the National Crime Agency from 4,200 to 5,500 or the 9% increase in the size of HM Revenue and Customs from 57,100 to 62,000. Brexit is likely to be part of the story following the reversion of responsibilities from Brussels to London, but the growth of cybercrime (for example) in the past few years will also have been a factor.

The civil service numbers reported by the Office for National Statistics exclude civil servants working for the Northern Ireland Executive and its agencies, but do include both the Scottish and Welsh governments. Most of the growth in numbers from 22,000 to 32,000 has been in Scotland as more powers have been devolved to its devolved administration, with the 16,800 FTEs in September 2018 growing by 9,700 or 58% to 26,500 in September 2023. The size of the civil service in Wales has gone up by a much more modest 700 or 13% from 5,200 to 5,900 in the same period.

One possible driver for some of the other increases is that cuts in the civil service made during the austerity years were never sustainable in the longer-term, with the demands that drove those numbers never having gone away. Another is that governments tend to want to “get things done” and there is therefore a need to find people to do them. 

Both of these factors may explain why both government departments and agencies have grown in size over the past half a decade.

While the civil service is less than 10% of the public sector workforce, it is often the first place that the government looks when it wants to find cost savings – and the current government is no different in seeking to cut the size of the civil service again. Whether those costs savings are sustainable in the long-term without more fundamental reform is another matter.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Public sector employment

My chart takes a look at how employment in the public sector has grown from 5.3m to 5.8m over the past five years.

Column chart in two sections showing FTEs in Dec 2017 and Dec 2022 and then headcount in Dec 2017 and Dec 2022.

Health and social care: FTEs 1,602,000 -- 1,864,000; headcount 1,870,000 -- 2,134,000.

Education: 1,099,000 -- 1,119,000; 1,494,000 -- 1,498,000.

Public administration: 859,000 -- 996,000; 1,018,000 -- 1,154,000.

Police and armed forces: 391,000 -- 421,000; 404,000 -- 431,000.

Other: 479,000 -- 511,000; 558,000 - 584,000.

Total: FTEs 4,430,000 -- 4,911,000; headcount 5,344,000 -- 5,801,000.

The size of the public sector workforce has grown significantly over the last five years between December 2017 and December 2022, with the number of full-time-equivalent employees (FTEs) increasing by 11% from 4,430,000 to 4,911,000 and headcount rising by 9% from 5,344,000 to 5,801,000.

This compares with a population increase of 2% over that time, but a 7% increase in those aged 65 or more (from 12.1m to 12.9m), which adds significantly to the demands placed on the National Health Service.

Our chart highlights how the number of FTEs working in health and social care increased by 16% from 1,602,000 to 1,864,000 between 2017 and 2022, while headcount went up by 14% from 1,870,000 to 2,134,000. This principally relates to the National Health Service, which saw FTEs go up 19% from 1,430,000 to 1,700,000 and headcount go up 17% from 1,640,000 to 1,916,000. Other health and social work staff fell slightly with FTEs down from 172,000 to 164,000 and headcount from 230,000 to 216,000. The latter excludes most social care staff, which are principally employed in the private sector.

The next biggest category is education, which saw FTEs increase by 2% from 1,099,000 to 1,119,000 at the same time as headcount was broadly flat, going from 1,494,000 to 1,498,000, implying more hours being worked by school staff and other state employees in the education sector. This represents an increase in efficiency given that pupil numbers have increased by around 4% over the same period.

Public administration FTEs increased by 16% from 859,000 to 996,000 and headcount by 13% from 1,018,000 to 1,154,000. This category includes the civil service (FTEs up 22% from 396,000 to 483,000 and headcount up 21% from 427,000 to 515,000) in addition to local authority and other office staff across the wider public sector. Much of this increase in public administration has been driven by Brexit, which has required more staff to perform duties previously outsourced to the EU as well as to administer more bureaucracy in the nation’s trading arrangements, although other factors such as pandemic have also had an impact.

Police and armed forces FTEs increased by 8% from 391,000 to 421,000 and headcount by 7% from 404,000 to 431,000. This can be analysed between the armed forces where FTEs were broadly the same at around 155,000 for both FTEs and headcount in both 2017 and 2022, and the police, including civilians, where both FTEs and headcount increased by around 12% (FTEs from 236,000 to 265,000 and headcount from 246,000 to 276,000). The latter principally reflects the government’s decision to reverse cuts in police numbers implemented in the early 2010s.

Other staff in the public sector have also increased over the last five years, with FTEs up 7% from 479,000 to 511,000 and headcount up 5% from 5,344,000 to 5,801,000.

Overall, the public sector in the UK has seen both employment headcount and hours worked per employee grow over the last five years as demands on public services have increased significantly. This is partly down to an ageing society, which puts pressure on the NHS, combined with the consequences of the pandemic, which exacerbated backlogs throughout the system. It is also a consequence of Brexit, which has added significantly to administrative and policy burdens placed on the civil service in particular.

These significant increases in FTEs and headcount perhaps explain the government’s moves to cut public sector pay in real-terms over the last few years. It remains to be seen if that Canute-like policy will be sufficient to hold back the tide of higher payroll costs that have been and are continuing to roll in to the shores of the public finances.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.