New Prospect civil service chief targets "toxic" performance management system

Written by Matt Foster on 5 November 2015 in News
News

Garry Graham – taking over from Leslie Manasseh at the union for specialists and managers – calls for "cool appraisal" of performance management by ministers

The civil service's performance management system is having a "toxic" effect on the workforce, the new deputy general secretary of Prospect union has claimed, as he urged ministers to carry out a "cool appraisal" of the scheme.

Under the current "guided distribution" model – introduced in 2013 in a bid to help managers better deal with poor performance – departments and agencies 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 by filling the bottom 10% with new staff or those about to leave.


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In an interview with Civil Service World, Garry Graham – who has now formally taken over responsibility for civil service issues in the specialist union following the retirement of Leslie Manasseh in October – named performance management as one of the key issues he planned to focus on.

"I’m a fan of good performance management," he said. "When somebody does a good job I think they should be told. Where somebody needs to improve they should be given the support and the assistance to do that. 

"But I think the guided distribution that we have is a toxic mix for team working. When I used to negotiate performance management [with private sector employers], line one, page one of the management consultancy textbook was that this system must have the confidence of staff and those who operate it. And it feels very much that that’s been turned on its head."

The Prospect deputy general secretary expressed concern that the issue had become "totemic in the eyes of ministers", and called instead for a "cool appraisal of what’s actually happening in practice and how we can do things differently".

He added: "I find it odd that if you want to motivate a highly-performing team that you should have a self-fulfilling prophecy that a certain percentage are going to be in the bottom. If you want to support managers to make difficult decisions then that’s one thing. Forcing them to make decisions which are potentially unfair is not good for organisations or for individuals."

While the performance management category percentages used by the civil service are described as guidelines and not forced targets, a CSW survey of more than 4,000 managers carried out last year found that over two-thirds felt pressured to hit those numbers.

"Underpaid"

Elsewhere in his interview, Graham said he worried about a "hollowing out" of specialist skills in the civil service amid ongoing public sector pay restraint, and warned of a "crisis of confidence" among public leaders.

"When I go to Scotland and Wales and the devolved assemblies, while the financial constraints are very similar, the types of dialogue that they have with trade unions, and the types of dialogue they have about public services is very, very different," he said.

"In many ways, those working for Whitehall departments at the moment feel underpaid compared to what’s happening in the private sector. I think they feel undervalued — who is out there championing what they do and the value that they add for UK citizens? If they see light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, it’s an oncoming train and it’s called the Spending Review."

The Treasury, which will set out the conclusions of the government-wide Spending Review on November 25, has said the ongoing 1% cap on public sector payrises – due to remain in place until 2019/20 is necessary to protect jobs and reduce public spending.

Graham previously led Prospect's work in the energy sector, dealing with organisations including the National Grid and EDF. He told CSW that his union wanted to "engage positively" with the government, and said he hoped to "change the way that we communicate about the public sector" to try and strike a more positive note. 

"Often it’s regarded as a homogenous mass," he said. "But if you look at what our members do in the Research Councils, in transport, in the Health and Safety Executive, in the Ministry of Defence, in cultural areas, they actually help to defend, support, and enhance what we feel is most dear about our way of life. So we need to find a way of communicating that so that the public and opinion formers see the valuable work that our members do and recognise that it’s important."

Update 6/11: A paragraph in an earlier draft of this story referred to Graham as Prospect general secretary. He is, of course, deputy general secretary. Apologies for the error

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is online editor of Civil Service World. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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Jane (not verified)

Submitted on 5 November, 2015 - 13:54
If only Senior Civil Servants and Ministers would listen to him about the toxic performance appraisal. They seem to think it works and to quote one when he was challenged about it, 'why would you want to carry poor performers?' However, many really good staff are ending up in the bottom 10% and this is especially true when a team is performing really well but someone gets chosen as the fall guy. The system of 4 bands was more fair, where only truly poor performers ended up in the bottom marking and there was no 'guided distribution'. SCS have reiterated time and again that the guided distribution does not mean that any manager is forced to put some staff into the bottom band, but the reality is that the managers ARE put under enormous pressure to do so and if a team is performing really well, the knowledge that someone will, no matter what, end up in the bottom band is very demotivating. Fear of the appraisal system drives behaviours against team work and where a project isn't working properly, managers are less likely to admit that if it means they may pay the penalty under the appraisal system. A project may not be working because a flawed concept is being tested, not because of a poor manager, but fear prevents proper identification of this. Using a carrot and motivation is far better than using a stick and at the moment the stick is feared greatly because it has fallen so often on staff who really don't deserve to be in the bottom category. It's a dreadful, flawed appraisal system and the manhours that goes into administering it cannot justify the supposed savings in those not getting the bonus. Senior Civil Servants say it is Industry Standard. I have worked in the private sector and I have never seen anything as unfair, subjective and hated as this appraisal system, nor I have seen such appalling waste of time and resources on such a system. It's management by fear.

Moira c (not verified)

Submitted on 6 November, 2015 - 23:08
It is such a waste of time and resource and only achieves to demoralise good staff . Poor management systems such as the performance curve do not allow managers to properly identify the value of their staff. Under this system depending of the skills in each team you could be the best of the worst or the worst of the best. This does not value staffs skills or motivate them .it does not tell management any thing about their organisation and it needs to be dropped. It is naive to believe that managers are not forced to populate the bottom 10 percent even if they believe there are no poor performers in their team .As a union rep I deal with such cases every day and usually the marking is moved up when challenged. And it makes no difference to the curve after the event It is such a waste of time and a lot of upset for staff. Poor performance is challenged in the civil service through capability which suspends performance review anyway therefore the bottom marking in Prs is just a way of saving the pay bill not improving performance , if the person is not cutting the mustard then they will be on capability anyway. Senior management need to read ther own HR procedures because processes are in place to deal wirhgenuine poor performance . Instead of driving to improve behaviours this system only drives the wrong behaviours from Top down and drives inequality and discrimination into the system Good luck getting them to listen but I will not hold my breath . T he civil service is renowned for introducing new performance systems every five years which have been discredited by the private sector and replaced by them What ever they replace the current system with will only be someone else's discredited system

Jill WWW (not verified)

Submitted on 6 November, 2015 - 23:20
Amen to that. If only someone would make a request for the actual cost of this to be shared with the public. It's a criminal waste of our citizens' taxes.

Anon100 (not verified)

Submitted on 17 December, 2015 - 00:06
I wonder if it is true about some managers having it in their own performance agreements to meet the targets or else, which can lead to their staff effectively lying about staff another level down just to protect their own backs. That is verging on corruption (which need not have a financial element). Hardly a fitting value for the Civil Service.

Cassandra (not verified)

Submitted on 15 December, 2015 - 23:33
...and if only someone would look at the demographics and admit that the effect of this system is not only demoralising and counterproductive but also patently discriminatory.

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