'There's only so much you put up with': DFID staff survey details collapsing morale

An aid worker unloads humanitarian supplies in northern Iraq. Photo by: DFID / CC BY

LONDON — The majority of staff at the U.K. Department for International Development have no long-term plans to stay at the organization, an internal survey has revealed.

Current and former employees expressed shock at the “unusually poor results” of the annual staff survey and blamed a combination of poor working conditions and leadership practices.

“DFID has usually been a place with strong loyalty and commitment to staying.”

— One former longtime staffer

The results paint a picture of a department where anxiety is high but faith in senior management is low. DFID has experienced frequent leadership changes over the past year and is facing the ongoing threat of a merger with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

The 2019 “Civil Service People Survey” showed that just 45% of DFID staff still want to be working for the department in three years’ time, down from 58% in 2013 and 51% last year.

In addition, 12% want to leave the department within the next 12 months, and another 7% are hoping to leave “as soon as possible” — meaning nearly a fifth of all staff want to leave the organization within a year.

That is despite a very high proportion of staff saying they found their work interesting and challenging.

“DFID has usually been a place with strong loyalty and commitment to staying,” said one former longtime staffer. But he highlighted how persistent rumors about the future independence of the department has impacted staff.

Speaking anonymously to preserve professional ties, he continued: “The political uncertainty around DFID's autonomy on top of a prolonged sense of grievance over working conditions appears to have tipped the balance for lots of people … There’s only so much you put up with.”

The source described working conditions in DFID’s Whitehall offices as “a long-running sore,” where civil servants constantly lacked desk space — even working in corridors or on stools — despite the promises of managers to improve the situation, as well as “collapsing” IT systems and no heating or air conditioning.

A serving DFID employee, speaking anonymously to protect his job, was also critical of senior management. He said “nothing actually happens” when promises are made by departmental leaders. “The way the senior management interpret dialogue is … a one way street of edifying speeches … They’re not actually listening to people,” he added.

Just 51% of DFID staff thought their senior managers would take action on the results of the survey, while less than half thought effective action had been taken on the results of the previous year’s survey.

Another former employee wondered if the “absolutely shocking” results were due to a churn of ministers leading the department, and the “Patel effect.” Priti Patel, former DFID secretary of state who now leads the Home Office, has received criticism for her management style and accusations of bullying.

“The kind of behavior that she manifests and demonstrates … just undermines confidence, morale and people’s mental health,” the source added, also speaking anonymously to preserve professional ties.

At 36%, nearly 1,000 DFID staffers said they felt anxious the day before they responded to the survey, while 15% of people said they had been bullied or harassed at work in the last year, and 16% said they had been discriminated against.

The results were said to be all the more disappointing because of the relative job security of working at DFID. “It's a rare thing for people to leave [the civil service] because the terms and conditions are good — if one minister is not so great, they come and go like buses,” added one source, stressing that salaries in other development organizations tend to be much lower.

A DFID spokesperson said: “DFID staff are united in their mission to help build a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world, with the vast majority of employees saying they are proud to work here. Across all government departments DFID has one of the highest scores for staff engagement.”

“We are constantly looking at ways we can improve our culture and we have strong mechanisms in place to make sure that appropriate action is taken if employees experience an issue at work. Bullying and harassment has no place in any organization and all allegations are taken extremely seriously and thoroughly investigated.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.