Feature: Outgoing civil service commissioners on how Brexit, pay restraint and diversity affect Whitehall
At the end of March, three members of the Civil Service Commission, which regulates recruitment and promotes the Civil Service Code, ended their five-year term in office. Kathryn Bishop, Wanda Goldwag and Angela Sarkis sat down with Civil Service World to reflect on their time in post and consider how Brexit, pay restraint and the drive to improve diversity will affect the civil service.
CSW: How has the civil service changed since you first became commissioners in 2012?
Kathryn Bishop (right): The civil service is clearly a bit smaller than it was, and I think there is a stronger focus on programme and project management. I think the diversity of the civil service, certainly at senior levels, got better for a while but has declined somewhat.
But the primary reflections I made at my final board meeting were about the means of entry into the civil service, which is particularly relevant and important as we contemplate the need for skills for Brexit. It certainly seems to me that there have been very significant changes, and that we are probably about to go into another period of significant change.”
Angela Sarkis: When we arrived five years ago, we had an incredibly large tome of instructions, literally, on what departments had to do, what we had to do. This hadn’t really worked very well because departments distrusted us. We looked like very hard-edged regulators, so we changed that and created something that we now call recruitment principles.
We generally refer to them now as guidelines, there’s more of an emphasis on working with departments and being more flexible – obviously getting the outcomes that we want but working in a more collaborative way. I think that has really built up the relationship with the departments, and we’ve actually had a better outcome.
CSW: How has this changed recruitment to the civil service?
KB: It is about ensuring there is a properly designed process that is fit for the particular context. There are a lot of myths in the departments. People have regularly said to every one of the commissioners: “This is the way we have heard it has to be”. And we look at them and say: “Well that is not one of our rules”. There are some myths out there which commissioners can be useful in unpacking.
Wanda Goldwag (right): So if we just take a good example, I did a lot of roles for the Government Digital Service, and for those roles we went through a process which would have been as speedy as the commission would have allowed, but actually was always slowed down by processes within GDS or within government.
Elsewhere in my life, I hire IT professionals. The person normally finds out the same day as their interview if they’ve got the role, because these skills are incredibly rare. Even with the best will in the world, it [in government] sometimes took one to two weeks to tell people that they had got the job, and fairly consistently, they had another job by then. So one of the challenges facing the modern civil service is that the recruitment process not only needs to be as efficient as Kathryn has described, it also needs to be fit for purpose. It may well be that a policy role does need quite a lot of reflection and other people discussing it and making decisions about when someone can be released and so on. But if you’re trying to do very senior digital roles, or project management roles, or commercial roles – all of which are crucial – then you need a process that doesn’t require someone going to a minister and waiting for months for a reply.
CSW: Will civil service recruitment need to adapt as a result of Brexit?
WG: I think that in certain key areas the process will no longer be about responding to a job and then going through a process in front of a panel. Take commercial skills. They are required in many different departments; it seems to me quite possible that we could do a recruitment process, and the civil service should consider doing a recruitment process, that is not exactly en masse but certainly reasonable numbers of people going through the processes.
AS: Yes. We’ve tended to recruit one on one – one role advertised and one role appointed to. Occasionally we have done more – I’ve done five-handers before, for five different roles in the one process, so it is certainly something we have done. As the commission moves forward, because we need to get additional skills on board and quickly, I would expect we may need to look at different ways of doing things.
I suspect we may need to be looking along the lines of semi-bulk recruitment for more senior roles, particularly when it is those specialist skills. The specialist skill areas we’re really challenged by – things like digital and negotiation skills – are specific operational skills that the civil service hasn’t traditionally used or needed.
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CSW: So pay is a factor hindering civil service capability improvements?
WG: I do think there is still a bit of dilemma there and I characterise the dilemma as this: I’d sit through debates about whether we were going to pay someone £130,000 a year or £135,000 a year, and all the credible candidates for the role earn £400,000. And that is a problem. And we are solving that problem in certain areas by creating entities that are going to be treated differently, for example, DE&S, the weapons-buying part of MoD has been separated off and has different rules about what they can pay. But you can’t solve the problem by doing that alone, you have to get some skills into the core civil service and I find it a little bit worrying, particularly in some of the IT roles that you’re basically hoping someone has made a lot of money somewhere else and is now willing to half their salary to come in, so I think that is still a bit of a concern.
CSW: What are the lessons from the introduction of the Extended Ministerial Offices [which from 2013 allowed ministers to bring in external advisers as temporary, non-political officials to bolster the support available]?
WG: That was slightly controversial, wasn’t it! We should acknowledge that. I think that having a neutral civil service giving genuinely neutral advice to ministers is absolutely essential, and ministers sometimes forget that they themselves are somewhat transient.
KB: I agree with all of that. The other point that I would add is that the introduction of Extended Ministerial Offices was accompanied by a commitment from the commission to review them after 12 months. And I think that, as a piece of practice, is a good example of a regulator being principled but also being flexible. We recognised the somewhat controversial nature of this proposal, were willing to put it into practice with appropriate safeguards and then to review it 12 months hence. And of course, at the 12 month point, there was not very much to review.
AS (right): We wanted to be flexible while not stepping down from some of the key things that the commission stood for. And part of that is not only about helping departments, it is about helping ministers. Many of them are, as Wanda said, pretty transient, but they go in and they’re new and they don’t know anybody and clearly it is understandable that they want some targeted support around them so they can get their manifesto pledges up and running. We absolutely understood all of that.
As it turned out, we didn’t have a chance to roll it out properly, because very few government ministers in the end decided it wasn’t the route they wanted to go down. [Five departments formed EMOs after the 2015 election, and the policy was ended earlier this year.] But it’s a good example of how we felt able to get something quite constructive out of what could have been quite a challenging ask.
CSW: How should the civil service measure progress in improving diversity?
KB: Much of the research about effective boards is beginning to show that appropriate diversity on boards – together with respectful management processes that appropriately use those diverse perspectives and experiences – produces better decisions. And I think that is an important way of talking about the necessity for diversity, rather than simply saying that we must have an organisation that mirrors and reflects the diversity of the population we serve. That too is important, but this notion of diversity being crucial to success, I think, is important.
WG: If I can give you an example: one of the panels I ran was for chief nuclear inspector, and we ended up with an all-male shortlist, and that is because 30 years ago, women weren’t doing those roles. We could have done all sort of things – and I made them look elsewhere in the world to try and find somebody – but there just wasn’t anybody who was a credible candidate.
[The best thing] is to constantly measure, to constantly monitor and to understand the challenges – not just to go, “oh that’s dreadful that we can’t seem to have any nuclear physicists who are women”, but to say, “well, if that’s the case, that’s an area of action”.
AS: Over the five years I think I have seen a big change, actually, for the better. But I’ll put a caveat, which is that it is not fast enough. The big change is that I genuinely feel that departments are wanting better diversity. What I mean by that is I think we’ve gone beyond the usual subsets of just more women or more minority ethnic candidates or more disabled candidates, I think we’re wanting to go further than that [and] it is about a diversity of approach and thinking – candidates that don’t necessarily come from Oxford and Cambridge.
We will always want people who are strong on policy, because that is crucial, but increasingly what we want is people who can combine policy with operational delivery and I suspect diversity is where the answer lies in helping us to get there.
KB: Absolutely. Most of the problems that we try to solve in the 21st century, and most of the problems that face the civil service, are so varied – they are cross-functional, they have elements that are unknowable, they are complex not just complicated, they change with every intervention you make. In that sort of environment, all the development is focused on getting leaders to work in leadership teams with a collection of experiences. The days of the single hugely intelligent individual pointing the way forward and being able to solve every problem are gone, they’re long gone.
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