Performance management: perm secs detail changes as Cabinet Office says it has "listened and learned"

Written by Jim Dunton and Matt Foster on 8 December 2016 in News

HMRC’s Jon Thompson and MoD’s Stephen Lovegrove shed light on what the end of guided distribution will mean for staff, as Prospect union and the Public Service People Managers' Association give their take on getting performance management right

The Cabinet Office this week confirmed it would give individual departments the option of dropping the controversial “guided distribution” element from their performance management regimes – but initial feedback from permanent secretaries suggests a single approach will not be employed to replace it.

Guided distribution requires civil service managers to categorise a set proportion of their staff as having “exceeded” expectations, “met” them, or be told “must improve”.

One consequence of the system, introduced by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2012, is that staff can be acknowledged to be performing acceptably but still categorised as “must improve”, and unions have frequently criticised the regime as forcing managers to arbitrarily assign officials to particular categories.

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However, after a new and more flexible Cabinet Office framework was signed off by permanent secretaries, HM Revenue & Customs, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, and the Department for Work and Pensions have all confirmed to staff that they will drop guided distribution from their performance management regimes from April next year, a move welcomed by civil service unions.

But at least some other departments may retain that system on the grounds that it is “working well” for them, according to an HMRC briefing seen by CSW.

HMRC's chief executive Jon Thompson (pictured) told staff in an internal memo this week that new flexibility agreed with the Cabinet Office would see additional changes to the removal of guided distribution, but that its demise was the only move that could currently be confirmed.

“The work done by our managers over the last few years in managing performance means that we’re able to identify the different levels of performance within our teams without the need for guided distribution,” he said.

“The changes we make in April 2017 will be the first step towards introducing a new approach to performance management.

“We will want to go further and engage with you as we design this new approach. So, over the course of the next year, you will have a chance to shape the new system in line with our evolving culture and values.”

An HMRC briefing published alongside Thompson’s message said staff would still need to set performance objectives at the beginning of the year, maintain them, and review their performance against them throughout the year, and that their performance would still be “differentiated”.

It said: “Managers will still need to identify high-potential and underperforming individuals, to ensure they continue to receive the support they need.”

The briefing also acknowledged that there was a pan-civil service need to ensure that new performance management models adopted by departments were consistent and did not act as a barrier for staff moving around Whitehall.

"Honestly and fairly"

A draft briefing to MoD staff from perm sec Stephen Lovegrove (pictured) meanwhile went into more details about the department’s plans to replace guided distribution, which he acknowledged was perceived as “demotivating and unfair”.

Lovegrove said the new system used by the MoD would still see staff given “narrative feedback” on their performance that would be delivered by their line manager and a countersigning officer, rather than a potentially remote “reporting officer”.

He said managers would still be expected to assess performance “honestly and fairly” but the removal of quotas for each performance category would mean that acceptable performers would no longer find themselves in the lowest-rated “must improve” category.

Lovegrove added that there would also be a “more flexible approach” to objective setting and a review of the department’s Special Bonus Scheme and Minor Award Scheme as a way to spread performance rewards throughout the year.

“The current approach of five objectives and six competencies does not suit everyone,” he said.

“The MoD employs people who do a vast range of different jobs, with varying levels of specialist knowledge and skills and this needs to be reflected in the way we set objectives.

“We will ensure that there is flexibility in the number of objectives that each individual can have and the ability to amend them throughout the reporting year.”

With four big departments confirming an end to guided distribution, attention is now likely to turn to the performance management regime that will replace the existing system.

The Cabinet Office said departments were "reviewing their current processes" and would be able to "make changes from April 2017".

"This is a crucial step in removing red tape across the civil service with a focus on improving performance and delivering better services," a spokesperson added.

“We’ve listened and learned, and we believe changing the performance management process will allow flexibility in departments to further improve consistency and quality in line management.”

"The dam has burst"

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect Union – which represents managers, specialists and professionals in the civil service – said that while some departments had yet to confirm the end of guided distribution, he believed that "effectively, the dam has burst on this issue".

"Clearly some departments are more mature in terms of their thinking about what new systems may look like for the future, while others are earlier on in that journey," he told CSW.

"But certainly what we will be pushing for as an interim measure in the coming reporting year is that even if organisations haven't fully developed their thinking, performance assessment should be not be run using quotas."

"What we need is performance management systems that have the confidence of staff" – Garry Graham, Prospect union

Graham pointed out that trials for new civil service performance management regimes have already begun in organisations including the Valuation Office Agency.

The VOA's pilot is, he said, focused "far more on a kind of coaching and supporting relationship" and "developing staff and developing their skills, rather than the kind of more old-fashioned, almost adversarial, approach to performance management that we've had with the quota system".

He added: "Moving away from that quota system is really welcome. We've been consistent right from the beginning on this – what we need is performance management systems that have the confidence of staff."

Sue Evans, president of the Public Service People Managers' Association, meanwhile told CSW that local government had dropped forced distribution as a model of performance management “a long time ago” because of its unpopularity and inability to deliver results.

"We need to get to a much more adult conversation about what needs to be done and how it can be done" – Sue Evans, PPMA

“In terms of good performance management, you want to be moving towards a much more regular ongoing conversation than annual assessments deliver,” she said.

“It might be team-centred, or look at what individuals are doing over the next three months – or even couple of weeks.

“We need to get to a much more adult conversation about what needs to be done and how it can be done.

“As soon as you get into a situation where you’re making a judgement about people’s abilities, they get very defensive and they won’t tell you what they find difficult.”

Evans said that if some departments genuinely considered that forced distribution was “working well”, they were probably not using it to improve staff performance.

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Mark Hammer (not verified)

Submitted on 9 December, 2016 - 18:29
The guided distribution is based on a profound misunderstanding of distributions by the relevant decision-makers. The expectation that some per cent are to be found at the tails of any distribution is a reflection of CHANCE processes. That is, there is no intervention, no cooperation, no supports. And yes, if no one set out clear objectives or provided resources, and no one knew what the deuce they were doing or expected to do, and no one had hired competently, I likely *would* expect the distribution of performance to correspond to chance. But that's not how government is supposed to operate, now, is it? And if it IS operating that way, just exactly who is underperforming: the staff or those who oversee the organization? That guided distribution is demotivating for employees is likely the least of its flaws. Most centrally, it bespeaks a deficit in understanding of evaluation. And if you don't understand how to evaluate the performance of something, how on earth should you be in charge of it?

CS (not verified)

Submitted on 13 December, 2016 - 13:56
I fully agree with this comment. I have known a manager who gave all of her staff a "Must Improve" rating, as she was determined to meet the forced distribution, while she received an "Exceed"! Surely, having several poor performing staff (if indeed they were) would show that the manager is doing something wrong...?


Submitted on 12 December, 2016 - 09:56
They listened and learned...then waited 4 years to act ........

Sean o (not verified)

Submitted on 13 December, 2016 - 14:40
All of these drawbacks and flaws in the system were pointed out vigorously by the unions before it was implemented. Several world-class multinational companies had tried the system and found it seriously damaging to morale and productivity. Still we went ahead and insisted on using it despite all the evidence against it. So will there be any accountability by anyone, will anybody get a "must improve" as a result, or will the perpetrators just move on quietly as Maude has done without any sanction?

HDD (not verified)

Submitted on 15 December, 2016 - 19:39
Nothing wrong with performance management per se but the main problem of PMR has been the guided=forced distribution. The mismanagement, deceit, misconduct and, dare I say it, corruption which this led to has done a great deal of damage to both the Civil Service and its staff with no discernable benefits to either, nor to the public. Markings were routinely changed to meet the targets regardless of actual performance. A banana republic would be proud of it and it's shown that the British are as bad as anyone else when push comes to shove. Maude has retired so doesn't care and nobody else will be held accountable. Our spineless so-called leaders at the time should have stood up and said NO and produced reams of evidence to show why this was always doomed to fail.

Sean o (not verified)

Submitted on 20 December, 2016 - 15:09
Couldn't agree more, HDD

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