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Chart of the week: Public sector employment

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 23 Mar 2023

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

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.

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