The civil service’s big recruitment shake-up is welcome — but we need to be building leaders

Written by Bernard Jenkin on 15 September 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

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.

About the author

Bernard Jenkin is Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and MP for Harwich and North Essex

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@JagPatel3

Submitted on 15 September, 2016 - 10:14
It has long been established as a fact that the lack of commercial skills in the Civil Service is hampering attempts to make central Government procurement more efficient. With respect to the Ministry of Defence, one must add the Project Management skills of its acquisition officials at MoD Abbey Wood, Bristol as a serious obstacle to value for money procurement. Because, instead of requiring Defence Contractors to scope a fully costed and priced Programme of Work in Microsoft Project to advance the developmental status of their starting-points for their Technical Solutions from their existing condition, to a point where they will satisfy the qualitative and quantitative requirements expressed in the technical specification, MoD is persisting with the tried-and-failed practice of asking for a plethora of Management Plans as a response to the invitation to tender – which has given Contractors a chance to stuff these plans full of: (a) Pretty pictures and diagrams. (b) Grossly exaggerated claims regarding the maturity of the starting-point for the Technical Solution. (c) Warm soothing words, false promises and hollow statements of intent skilfully crafted in such a way as to allow Contractors to rescind on work commitments later on, during the Contract performance phase. (d) Organisational charts with names of self-important people on overheads who will not be getting hands-on with the work to be done in the next phase. (e) An asking price quoted in the ITT response which bears no correlation to the work intended to be performed by the Contractor during the follow-on phase. (f) A non-existent or useless schedule. In addition, the widespread practice of digging out old ITTs from the archives, dusting them off, searching & replacing the project name and despatching them off to Contractors has resulted in the Principles of Natural Justice being routinely violated, because selection criteria essential to inform the decision on down-selection, phase-by-phase is omitted – leaving Bidders in the dark as to what evaluation criteria they will be measured against. Such is the stupid folly of the moment that this is what passes for best practice in Project Management in the 21st century, as practiced by MoD civil servants and Defence Contractors! It’s not so much a lack of skills in the Civil Service that is the problem, but a surplus of people with the wrong skills. Accordingly, innovation and new ways of working in the Civil Service will come only after the headcount has been cut, not before! @JagPatel3 on twitter

Fran Elliott (not verified)

Submitted on 21 September, 2016 - 11:11
I had a civil service career and did well, passing a grade 7 board in my early thirties before going into senior management in the corporate private sector for 10 years, during which time I participated in running a family business. Amongst other things, I have professional CIPS commerical qualifications, paid for by the Service and obtained via the Civil Service College, Sunningdale. Since returning to the Civil Service post-recession, no one has been interested however. I think it's so sad that civil servants have been on the receiving end in recent years of a recruitment process that has discounted long-term experience and qualifications. The so-called CV section only allows information about your last five roles and, given civil service restructuring, this can soon be eaten up with the various sideways shifts that ensue. Candidates end up restricted to talking about what they've done in the last 2-5 years. Surely it's easy to see how this entraps people in a vicious circle of 'you are only what you've just done' and this could be indirectly discriminating against older workers who have longer career paths. Life experience and varied work experience ought to be valued. Ironically, private sector experience does appear to be highly valued when there is money around, because we then bring in external consultants. But sometimes even they have less experience than permanent staff but they seem to get greater credibility with leaders. How short-sighted the competency recruitment policy has been! The civil service is probably littered with clipped wings and derailed careers. I can't believe it's taken so long to do something about it but so glad this review has happened.

Alan T (not verified)

Submitted on 13 October, 2016 - 11:21
So are they REALLY scrapping the accursed competency-based interview system? If so, this is fantastic news! I have lost count of the times I have been rejected after attending one of these stupid competency interviews - despite my many years of admin experience in various departments of the Civil Service - due to not being able to "talk the talk". And I know that there are many other applicants who share my sentiments here about these flawed competency based interviews. I can't wait for the blessed day that the scrapping of this damn competency system arrives. Please tell me I won't have to wait too long.

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