Civil service performance management: survey highlights leaders' frustrations

Written by Matt Foster on 29 April 2016 in News

PCS study of almost 25,000 civil servants, including managers, finds widespread concern about the way performance management is working in practice

A new survey of almost 25,000 officials has hinted at widespread dissatisfaction with the civil service’s controversial performance management system, including among line managers.

The organisation’s current system of tracking staff performance was introduced in 2013 in a bid to help managers better deal with poor performers. Under the “guided distribution” model recommended by the Cabinet Office, managers are encouraged to rank 65% of their staff as middling, 25% as performing well, and 10% as poor performers.

But unions have questioned the model, claiming that the requirement to identify poor performers has pressured some managers into “gaming” the system. Specialist union Prospect also produced analysis earlier this month suggesting that BME staff, those with disabilities, and officials working part time were more likely to receive the lowest rankings.

Performance management may be discriminating against BME, disabled and part-time civil servants, warns Prospect
Francis Maude calls for change to civil service performance management which would see bosses give staff individual rankings

The new study, carried out by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union — which has long been opposed to the system — is based on a survey of 24,856 members, with just under a fifth (19.5%) of respondents saying they were responsible for line-managing staff through the performance management process.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (94%) said it was unfair that 10% of staff should be ranked as “must improve”, with only 2% saying that requirement was fair.

And while just over a fifth (20.4%) agreed that the performance management process was “a worthwhile exercise”, more than two-thirds (67.3%) disagreed, with the remaining respondents saying they did not know.

”The kinds of processes that use forced rankings have been abandoned in other industries for these very reasons, and they must be scrapped from the civil service” - PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka

The survey also highlighted particular concerns among line managers. More than two-thirds (64.5%) of those who said they managed staff disagreed that the system was “a good way for line managers to be able to manage staff”.

Around three-quarters (75.3%) of managers who responded to the survey said the system placed leaders “in an impossible situation by having to give staff a ‘must improve’ or ‘top’ box marking”.

And just 5.7% of managers agreed that the system generated “healthy competition” between team members, with 83% disagreeing. Only 5.9% said performance management encouraged team work, against 81.4% who disagreed with that statement.

There were also concerns about the impact of the system on day-to-day leadership, with 71.4% of managers agreeing that the performance management system “puts too much pressure on managers”.

Meanwhile, 72.3% of managers agreed that the system left them spending too much time “preparing for and undertaking performance reviews with staff”. Across the wider sample, 55% of respondents said they spend more than two hours preparing for and undertaking their review, with 17% spending more than seven hours on it.

The guided distribution model of allocating 10% of staff as poor performers, 25% as top performers and the rest as middling, also comes in for specific criticism. 

Across the wider sample, 60.5% said that if they could change one thing about the way performance management operates, they would focus on “removing the forced ranking/guided distribution system”.

Just under a fifth (19.8%) said getting rid of all box markings would be their top priority, while 14.2% said they would ensure there was no link between the performance management system and pay.

The union is currently preparing a final report on the findings, which it intends to present to the Cabinet Office.

Speaking to CSW, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said private sector organisations had already moved away from the kind of performance management system used by the civil service.

“These results are devastatingly clear and show a system that is not only unfair, divisive and demotivating, but also time-consuming and ineffective,” he said. “The kinds of processes that use forced rankings have been abandoned in other industries for these very reasons, and they must be scrapped from the civil service.”

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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Ken (not verified)

Submitted on 29 April, 2016 - 13:53
Guided distribution is 10/70/20 this year. 20% Must Improve


Submitted on 29 April, 2016 - 14:34
Staff have been telling senior management for at least 2 years that the system was time consuming, devisive, and not fit for purpose. The private sector have largely abandoned the system we use for just these reasons. WHY does is seem to take an eternity for our senior management to wake up and smell the coffee???

Phil C (not verified)

Submitted on 3 May, 2016 - 12:57
I think civil service senior management became aware quite soon after the introduction of the current reporting system of its flaws and divisiveness. No change has been made because it is not the SCS in Departments that ultimately controls whether we have this reporting system but the Cabinet Office. In other words, the politicians. It's no secret that this Government has a certain clumsy antipathy towards all public sector workers in how it deals with them. This is the real reason why we still have this system. However, as any manager will tell you, improved morale leads to improved productivity. Changing this appraisal system in favour of something less divisive would improve morale. I find it ironic that political prejudice and stubbornness is hindering the very things it seeks - improved productivity!

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 3 May, 2016 - 19:04
It's because people did not complain loudly enough. If you complain loudly enough, they will listen.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 4 May, 2016 - 10:47
Perhaps it is because senior management are all ranked in Box 3 - still trying to improve.

Too little too late? (not verified)

Submitted on 29 April, 2016 - 15:01
As welcome as it is to finally see someone take a stand and even assuming that this report garners any response other than a stiff ignoring by the powers that be is it not already far too late? The damage has been done, and will not be repaired in anything like as short a time as it took to inflict. Collaborative working has been undermined by people having to compete against their colleagues for the limited pool of box1 markings. Likewise trust and respect between line managers and staff has been undermined where deliberate under-marking to meet the "guided" distribution has occurred (remember that staff can only appeal the process not the scores) and those who have regularly gone above and beyond the call of duty in the past only to be told they best they can hope to expect for their efforts is a box 2 and a pat on the head have had all incentive to continue to perform at such a high level knocked clean out of them.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 29 April, 2016 - 18:33
While I agree that performance management should be reviewed, we should not jump to conclusions. More evidence is required on the reasons behind the performance management scores rather than saying it is because of so-and-so. To tell minorities that the world is automatically against them is more harmful than being paranoid about discrimination and assuming that everything is to do with discrimination. For example there could be a number of reasons that BME staff receive lower scores: - maybe they are more likely to get promoted/recruited, meaning that they are new to their current role, meaning that they would have been less likely to have achieved as much so far - I certainly wouldn't put it past some civil servants to be prejudiced. But those are isolated cases. - A small number of people from BME backgrounds might have been recent immigrants. Immigrants in general are less well off on average, and this could be linked to performance results. - What are the cultural factors behind BMEs' perceived performance? Although just because you are a BME it does not necessarily mean that you are from a different culture. If we are to work in the national interest (as per competency framework) we must believe in one nation, one culture. But family background/culture/religion may play a part in determining whether it is seen to be decent for someone to boast about their achievements and show off (which may be a prerequisite to perceived success). As a BME person myself, I find it very upsetting and extremely hurtful that people assume that everything is to do with racism/prejudice against disabled people/prejudice-ism in general. If lefty academic types really care about the real world, they should not always assume the worst of people, rather, a balance of optimism and evidence-based realism is needed.

Re: Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 3 May, 2016 - 14:17
You are not "a BME person", so stop trying to pretend to be one just to justify your biased comments. BME staff have had 10, 20 year or more of favouritism stacked up against us and now we have the statistical data to back up our long-standing claims. So don't try to delay justice by saying 'hold on, let's not be rash' - the evidence is here and can NO LONGER BE IGNORED. Wonder why are you "upset" that people are "assuming" things when there is clear evidence here and in numerous other studies of bias. Numbers don't lie. You are as BME as Nigel Farage so stop pretending you are not.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 3 May, 2016 - 10:41
The system is a joke. Everyone knows it. It does nothing for moral and does the opposite of team working.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 3 May, 2016 - 11:40
De- motivating correct, to me a worker on the front line it was just another means of making sure I cannot achieve a box 1 marking, when I was put on "performance related pay". It does not seem to matter how I perform I get a box 2 for doing the job properly. box 3 markings seem reserved for those who have been getting stressed by increasing work loads or have had hospital treatment requiring more than 7 days recuperation in the year. Hard to defend it as a fair system because it it has quotas, it's not.

Paul J (not verified)

Submitted on 4 May, 2016 - 13:03
The current PDR system will always be a reflection of the what its advocates regard as good , as for them ambition and self aggrandizement are their strongest attributes and it is flattering to believe that others admire them for their self anointed virtue. Hence why those who are not so driven by self promotion and vanity don't do so well hence the composition of the 20 % .

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