Long-term workforce strategy needed to manage Welsh Government staffing pressures and ensure resilience
Short-term measures helped manage Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic but staff shortages have delayed some projects and programmes.
The Welsh Government has been managing its staffing challenges in the absence of a formal strategic workforce plan
During a period of financial pressure, since 2010, the Welsh Government has tried to constrain its staffing costs. To do this, it has had tight controls on new posts and external recruitment, especially for permanent staff. Full-time equivalent staff numbers in 2021-22 were 9% lower than in 2009-10, despite a modest increase since 2017 to cope with the most urgent demands of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall staff costs fell in real terms after 2010 but have now returned to their 2009-10 level. Real-terms salary costs have fallen by 6.6% over the period, but total staff costs rose by 0.3% due mainly to higher pension and National Insurance contributions.
Our report found that, in some cases, workforce pressures have made it difficult for the Welsh Government to achieve some of its policy ambitions. Several programmes, projects and policies have been delayed due to staff shortages. To manage these operational challenges, the Welsh Government has had to use short-term reactive measures like reassigning staff to priority roles, temporary recruitment, paying staff extra to take on more senior responsibilities, and inward secondments.
The prolonged period of constrained external recruitment combined with low turnover means the Welsh Government has had a stable but ageing workforce. Despite some progress, this situation has also made it difficult to diversify the workforce so that it is representative of the broader Welsh population, or to bring in fresh talent, new perspectives and key skills (even when this would result in financial savings).
The Welsh Government has never had a formalised strategic workforce plan. While there have been relevant initiatives - for example to develop leadership and talent - progress in developing a more strategic approach was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gaps in data and fragmented information systems have also made the process of workforce planning more difficult, though improvements to information systems are planned. The Welsh Government intends to develop a workforce strategy during 2022-23 that is integrated with other strategies around home working and use of digital technology.
Our report outlines recommendations to the Welsh Government around the development of its workforce strategy, including a long-term assessment of workforce needs, plans to address any gaps, and a robust process for prioritising workloads within available resources. We also make recommendations around strengthening workforce data and evaluating recent changes to the way workforce decisions are taken.
Like many other public bodies, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Welsh Government’s workforce as its staff have had to adapt to new ways of working and rapidly changing priorities. However, the need for a comprehensive strategy to deal with long-term workforce challenges in a sustainable way is increasingly pressing. The Welsh Government faces a challenging workload to deliver its programme for government, while dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic and new responsibilities arising from Brexit.