The civil service’s big recruitment shake-up is welcome — but we need to be building leaders
Bernard Jenkin, the Public Administraton and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman, offers his verdict on the recently published Civil Service Workforce Plan
There is much to be commended in the Civil Service Workforce Plan. Who can argue with the worthy aim to make the civil service the “most diverse employer in the UK”, for example?
A shake-up of recruitment processes has long been in the pipeline, so plans to pilot new approaches to recruitment and promotion and the end to the competency-based recruitment processes are welcome.
The competency framework was devised to ensure the civil service was always recruiting the sort of people with the skills the departments need. But the rigidity of the written and oral competencies during the recruitment process has potentially had the opposite effect. In many cases, both internal and external candidates have struggled to make sense of the applications.
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One of the most significant developments in the plan is the aim to have all recruitment open to external candidates by default by the end of this parliament. That would certainly help departments seeking to fill the more specialised roles with people who have appropriate expertise and experience. This remains, however, a second-best objective. The highest-functioning organisations develop their own people with the skills and experience from within.
"The ability of permanent secretaries to plan career pathways in their departments is lacking, and this is required more than ever"
So the focus of the paper, on the enhanced role for the 26 professions and on the creation of professional development frameworks for each, is a positive step. There is a risk that the growth in the importance of the role of the “functions” civil servants are expected to fulfil will be overwhelmed by competing frameworks, and career pathways which are not being guided by strong leadership. How on earth does a civil servant feel they can plan their career? The reality is that most civil servants look to their own department for that leadership.
The ability of permanent secretaries to plan career pathways in their departments is lacking, and this is required more than ever following the turmoil caused by the EU referendum result.
The plan also emphasises cross-government functions and the creation of Single Functional Plans. These will be an important step but, to be useful, these plans themselves must provide more granular detail than is evident so far. An NAO report published in July criticised the published Single Department Plans, arguing that they “do not meet the government’s stated aim to be “the most transparent ever”.
The strategy also highlights the development of commercial skills, something the predecessor committee to PACAC was particularly interested in. Oliver Robbins described this as the service’s single biggest failure during our skills inquiry which reported in March 2015. Francis Maude commented that there had not been enough commercial thinking in procurement processes – individuals were procurement-processing, not bringing business acumen to the role.
"Why exempt one group from anything whilst expecting others to conform, since this leads to cynicism, not empowerment?"
The plan includes steps to make rewards more flexible and to reflect real performance. Making senior commercial civil servants exempt from the traditional grade structure breaks down traditional hierarchies and empowers staff, which begs the question: why exempt one group from anything whilst expecting others to conform, since this leads to cynicism, not empowerment? It is essential to recognise this so that the civil service can pay for the talent that it needs in the jobs which need to be filled. The alternative is that people move on too quickly to get promotion, or the system has created job titles and grades to attract senior civil servants in order to pay a salary which will attract or retain the necessary talent.
A shortcoming of the plan is the lack of emphasis on learning and development, and overall, on leadership. The Leadership Academy is but a first step. It was the view of the predecessor committee to PACAC that the National School of Government should not have been abolished in the first place. Whatever its shortcomings may have been, its abolition leaves a huge gap.
"Any organisation the size of government should take far more control over the development of its own people"
Any organisation the size of government should take far more control over the development of its own people. Learning and development must reflect the needs of not just professions and functions, but of the need for development of general leadership capability. As PASC pointed out last year, civil service leadership development is traditionally strong on “experiential learning”. The Leadership Academy strengthens “conceptual learning”. But there is a shortage of reflective learning and a hostile environment for “experimental learning”, though there are now many, like civil service chief executive John Manzoni, who clearly appreciate this.
In its September 2013 report, “Truth to Power: how Civil Service reform can succeed”, the Public Administration Select Committee was critical of many aspects of the Civil Service Reform Plan, specifically its failure to address key questions about the role and design of the service.
The far-reaching inquiry into the work of the civil service to be undertaken this year by PACAC aims to build on this work. Written evidence can be submitted here.
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