A panel of MPs has raised concerns over Defra’s management of its staff, with evidence of low morale, lack of confidence and even bullying in the background of severe budget cuts.
In its Ninth Report of Session 2013–14, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee noted that an annual survey of people employed within government departments known as the Engagement Index indicated that Defra’s staff morale was in decline and lower than in other departments.
The committee also called for ‘clarity’ in how the department will develop policy as it and the Environment Agency cope with reduced budgets. Defra’s budget has been cut by £500m since the 2010 Spending Review and it will face another reduction of £300m up to 2015-16.
The Engagement Index puts a score to staff attitudes such as pride, inspiration and motivation to do a good job.
In 2012 Defra’s staff scored 50%, down from 52% in 2011 and eight percentage points below an average of 58% among civil servants.
Staff of other two departments of relevance for the waste industry, DCLG and BIS, scored in the bottom rank of the Engagement Index as well, with 43% and 52%, respectively.
EFRA also expressed concerns over employee perceptions of their management teams. Only 19% of employees believed change was managed well in Defra and only 25% said that Defra motivated them to achieve its objectives. The figures were more around 10 and 13 percentage points below the average among civil servants.
The report also mentioned that 10% of Defra staff, or 200 employees, had reported experience of bullying or discrimination.
Bronwyn Hill, Defra’s permanent secretary, said: “Cleary I am not happy with those staff survey results.”
She added that Defra had undertaken initiatives to tackle the problem, mainly on learning and development. She also stressed that Defra had a zero tolerance policy for bullying and “sought to act on reported incidents swiftly”.
The EFRA Committee said it was also “surprised” by the discrepancy between the amount of bonuses Defra paid to senior staff and junior staff and suggested a review of the practice could help improve the sentiment among employees.
“Increasing performance-related bonuses for those at the lower end of salary scales, with a consequent reduction for its higher-paid senior staff, might help to improve staff morale,” it said.
The evidence presented by EFRA reflected another report by the specialist magazine Civil Service World, which in December suggested that Defra had the third highest senior management turnover since 2010 after BIS and the Cabinet Office.
According to the report Defra lost 100% of its director generals since 2010 and 166% of ministers, not including the secretary of state.