As the Civil Service Commission highlights “negligible” progress on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic diversity in its annual report – and cautions that appointment panels often face “insufficient choice” of good candidates – first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore talks to CSW about his priorities for the coming parliament
The Civil Service Commission will be urging ministers to create opportunities in the civil service for people from all backgrounds over the coming parliament.
The commission, which regulates recruitment into the civil service, oversees competitions for the most senior roles in Whitehall, and is tasked with upholding the Civil Service Code, published its 150th annual report today.
In the report, first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore sets out four priorities for the commission in the current parliament: supporting government to deliver Brexit, driving progress on diversity, helping the civil service attract and retain key skills such as digital, and encouraging ministers to improve social mobility and increase the opportunities for people from disadvantaged social backgrounds to enter the service.
Speaking to CSW, Watmore said he had worked with former education minister John Denham to recruit the first apprentice into the civil service in 2008 – something which HR systems at the time were not set up to support. “We found it really hard to do, but she has gone on to great things,” he said. “She is now a Grade 7 in DExEU but, just as importantly, the system at large now recruits hundreds, thousands of apprentices every year. That’s an example of how we have given an individual [better] life chances in the civil service, but the civil service itself has also benefitted.”
Watmore plans to talk with ministers about the ways in which the government could increase these opportunities, particularly for groups such as ex-offenders and ex-military personnel. He hopes to be able to talk more about this in the commission’s next annual report, he added.
Commissioners chaired 162 panels for senior appointments in 2016-17, of which four were for permanent secretary roles. The commission also made several appointments of its own to replace outgoing members (each commissioner serves a five year term) and welcomed Watmore as the first commissioner, alongside a new chief executive Peter Lawrence. Most recently, it has announced the appointment of Jane Burgess, formerly the partners' counsellor at John Lewis, who, during her time at the retail firm was responsible for ensuring that the company remained true to its principles and treated employees – who are co-owners of the business, and known as partners – well.
Burgess is one of six female commissioners – the CSC has a 505/50 gender split – and Watmore reflected that changing views about women at work has been one of the key ways in which the civil service has changed since the commission published its first annual report. “When it all started back in 1855 it was for the recruitment of young men into the civil service, and yet the last three perm sec appointments were women,” he said.
“Many things are different, but some things are exactly the same – in the sense that the core values of the civil service, things that Northcote and Trevelyan set out in 1855, remain just as true today.”
Above: A timeline of key events in the Civil Service Commission's history. Click image to see a larger version
Among the commission’s priorities for this parliament is to continue improving civil service diversity on all fronts. The report notes that although there is a “welcome” trend towards greater gender diversity, “this is not matched by appointments of disabled or BAME people where senior progress is, frankly, negligible; and other aspects of diversity which are patchy at best”.
In 2016-17, BAME and disabled candidates were significantly less likely to reach the interview stage, with people from BAME backgrounds making up 11% of applicants but only 3.5% of shortlists for senior appointments. Candidates declaring a disability made up 4.3% of applicants but only 2.7% of shortlists.
“We just need the very best”
Watmore also highlighted the need to attract and retain skills such as digital, commercial and social entrepreneur expertise to the civil service. To support the civil service, Watmore told CSW, the commission is ensuring that its own commissioners have the understanding and experience to chair and advise on competitions where departments are seeking newer skills.
He added that this doesn’t mean traditional skills such as policy and diplomatic experience would be less valued – they would be essential for Brexit, he noted.
“We need to attract the new and the old skills; we just need the very best and need to get those skills from wherever.”
In 2016-17, the proportion of senior appointments being awarded to candidates from within the civil service rose to 60%, compared to 46% last year. The number of appointments going to private sector candidates remained stable – at 20% – but fewer people were appointed from the wider public sector (20% this year, compared to 31% in 2015-16).
The report notes that these proportions have tended to fluctuate over the years and that “caution should be applied to interpretation of these figures given the small numbers involved”.
Attracting strong candidates
Alongside the challenge of attracting key skills, the service faces a deeper challenge to lure high quality candidates for vacancies. Although the number of competitions which did not find a candidate has fallen this year, chief executive Peter Lawrence noted in his foreword that panels often had “insufficient choice, with only one appointable candidate.
“Search consultants employed on these senior competitions regularly reported difficulties in securing external applications because of the relatively low salary levels compared to other organisations,” he said.
The report also suggests that the falling number of failed competitions may in part be because last year’s figures included large numbers of commercial and digital posts which were not filled.
“These are skills that are in particular demand in the marketplace, and civil service remuneration is at the lower end of what is on offer,” it explained.
“However during the past year there have been new approaches to the pay offer for these professional areas. This may to some degree explain why fewer competitions failed to find appointable candidates, though the number of competitions where only one appointable candidate was found do remain high.”
Watmore told CSW that this is a challenge discussed at the “highest levels in civil service all the time”.
“You can be seduced into thinking everything’s fine,” he said, because the service is still getting good people for most jobs. “But if it’s only one good person the well becomes dry, and then suddenly you have a problem.”
He added that ideally, panels would end up with two or even three appointable candidates which not only gives options if one person no longer wants the job, but gives a reserve list which can be approached should departments need to fill posts at short notice. The chair of the Grenfell Inquiry, he noted, was on a reserve list from a previous competition so the government was able to approach and appoint him quickly.
Watmore said commissioners would sometimes seek to delay a completion if they didn’t think the department would attract a good field – which could be “tough when there are people hollering to get vacancy filled”.
So, he advised, civil servants must think about how they will attract strong candidates early in the process of filling a post.
“Quite often people start to worry about the strength of the field once it’s been assembled – that’s too late. Rather than put a lot of effort into selecting from a weak field, make more effort to attract a strong field,” he said.