Baroness Gisela Stuart has been in post as first civil service commissioner for a year. With ambitions to improve the recruitment process and make the senior civil service more representative, has she managed to get her house in order?
When Baroness Gisela Stuart was announced as first civil service commissioner in March last year, eyebrows were raised. Despite being the government’s preferred candidate for the watchdog role, the crossbench peer did not receive unanimous backing from MPs.
Unlike the majority of her predecessors, Stuart had not been a civil servant. And as a former Labour MP and Vote Leave chair, concerns were voiced about her impartiality – quite a stumbling block when you consider the Civil Service Commission works to safeguard an impartial civil service.
One year on, has Stuart reassured the doubters and lived up to her own ambitions for the role?
In her maiden speech, given at the FDA union’s conference in May 2022, Stuart set out her aim to shake up the civil service recruitment process and “encourage and support new ways of doing things”.
While promising to never lose sight of the commission’s statutory duty to ensure selection for civil service jobs is open, fair and on merit, Stuart told the FDA that “as a board, we constantly ask ourselves whether we are striking the right balance between our regulatory duties and our desire to be flexible and pragmatic. We want the civil service to innovate and experiment”.
Today, Stuart explains what “innovative recruitment” should mean to departments.
“We want them to try new things, albeit within the boundaries of the recruitment framework,” she tells CSW.
“It’s about making sure they’re taking regional diversity and diversity of background into account as much as the more standard terms.”
That wider recruitment pathway has been smoothed by the decision to make roles open to external candidates by default.
The diversity-boosting move, which also aims to broaden expertise, requires ministers to request an exemption if they want to recruit without advertising externally. So what would constitute an exemption?
“If a vacancy comes up that needs to be filled quickly, or [the post requires] very specialist knowledge that you will only find within the civil service,” Stuart explains.
Extending "external by default" to all grades means the commission will need to oversee substantially more recruitment competitions. How does Stuart intend to cope with the huge numbers of appointments?
“We’re developing a model of earned autonomy,” she says. “If you’ve got really good practice, you can do your own recruitment.” The commission will still reserve the right to oversee an appointment, but where a department has high compliance scores and “a good track record”, Stuart is willing to move to an earned autonomy position for some roles.
“We’ve done an early pilot with the Welsh government and it was really successful,” she says. “It’s a model to work on.”
A somewhat thornier issue is pay. The Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor provides an annual assessment of the civil service – how it has changed and performed, and its priorities for the future.
The 10th edition, launched at the end of January, highlights that lower grade officials can rise up the ranks to increase their earnings, but, because there are fewer roles available in the most senior ranks of the civil service, senior officials unsatisfied with their pay are more likely to leave.
This point was underlined by the civil service chief operating officer, Alex Chisholm, who told MPs last November that external candidates for potential civil service jobs were earning multiples of what the civil service could pay.
Throw in the fact that SCS pay has had the biggest real-terms drop of all grades since 2010, and you wonder how government organisations can attract the best talent to those senior roles when the pay is so much lower than on the “outside”.
“People wanting to come into government at a fairly senior level know they’ll have to take a considerable cut in salary”
“People wanting to come into government at a fairly senior level know they’ll have to take a considerable cut in salary,” Stuart says when this is put to her. “But they’ve reached a stage in their professional career where they [relish] the complex and complicated issues they can get involved in. Government is a challenge. But they regard that challenge as a privilege.”
Stuart continues: “Salary is one of the factors that people look at, but it is only one of them.”
When it comes to recruitment, one talent pool Stuart wants to dip into is populated by ex-civil service employees. She is keen to attract those who have left the service back into the fold.
“I hope we have movement into the civil service from outside, but also from [former] civil servants [who have worked for] private companies coming in again,” she says.
Stuart is prepared to play the long game. “It’s about growing that internal talent as much as attracting external talent. Then the talent can move in and out. The big aim is that the civil service brings on those professional skills internally, but then those people also move out and come back in again.”
This all feeds into what government leaders are calling “the porosity agenda”. The aim, broadly, is to attract people to the civil service from a wider range of backgrounds. Is there anything the commission is doing specifically to help that agenda?
Stuart highlights the Commissioners’ Mark of Excellence initiative. Launched in 2022, it’s designed to recognise and reward innovative hiring practices – from the basics of improving the wording of job descriptions, through to working with schools to provide employability skills training, and participating in programmes such as the Autism Exchange Internship and the Great Place to Work for Veterans initiative. Anything, essentially, that helps departments to attract and recruit a diverse field of candidates for a career across all grades in the civil service.
The inaugural winner was the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which came top out of a shortlist of 18 campaigns from 39 entries across the civil service.
Stuart was on the judging panel, which was led by former civil service commissioner Natalie Campbell.
Announcing the winner last July, Campbell said: “BEIS is the first department to explore innovations in game-based assessments and video interviews scored by algorithms, using artificial intelligence.”
It is this new approach to recruitment shown by BEIS and the five others “highly commended” by the judges (Office for National Statistics; Scottish Office; Ministry of Justice; Crown Prosecution Service; and HM Revenue and Customs) that Stuart wants to encourage.
Stuart is also keen to partner with England’s network of city-regional leaders to progress efforts to level up the civil service by moving it out of London.
“I really want to do more work with strategic mayors,” she says. “Whether it’s Andy Burnham or Andy Street, in the north-east or the north-west. We will not achieve levelling up if we don’t strengthen that local infrastructure of skills.”
The push for “geographic diversity” has already got off to a good start with HM Treasury’s Darlington Economic Campus. It’s getting positive feedback from staff and currently has strong backing from HMT leaders. What’s the secret to Darlington’s success?
“Senior civil servants have gone there,” says Stuart, frankly. “Whenever you create a hub or any location outside London, it has to start with the most senior figure being the first to go.”
But simply creating a hub is not enough, she warns. It’s vital to “establish close working relationships with other institutions in the [area] – local universities, large employers and local authorities. You will not see success unless you make sure [the hub] links in with its local environment.”
On the subject of close working relationships, Stuart does not shy away from the fact there can be friction between civil servants and politicians. As a former MP, she has first-hand experience of the day-to-day interactions between both sides. And this insight, she believes, can help in her role as first civil service commissioner and her efforts to improve the civil service recruitment process.
“I bring a greater understanding of the urgency politicians have, and the timescale. I understand their desire, but I also see that the starting point [for recruitment] must be the merit of applicants.
“The assumption is that, as a former politician, I’m going to be easier on my [former] colleagues. [But it just means I] understand the pressures a bit more and can say: ‘That’s not a good idea’ or ‘That’s not the conversation to have.’
“The biggest contribution I can make to the role is occasionally asking [ministers] to reflect and say: ‘Is that really what you want to do?’”
Even so, Stuart is under no illusion that the working relationship between politicians and civil servants is plain sailing. “Tensions arise, but they are part of the essential checks and balances of a functioning democracy,” she told the FDA in her speech.
But when those tension tip over into briefings against civil servants – such as during the working from home row – Stuart draws the line.
“What I really deplore, and I deplore it because it’s wrong and it’s counterproductive, is anonymous briefings against individuals when they can’t defend themselves,” she tells CSW.
“Civil servants are servants of the crown. For all practical purposes the crown in this context is represented by the government of the day… and that government should not brief against you.”
Stuart says her mission is to ensure people understand that “honesty, integrity, impact, impartiality and objectivity [must be part of] everyday conduct”. Sentiments that may have taken a back seat while the country seemingly ricocheted from one crisis to the next.
“We’ve had the most extraordinarily tumultuous few years – three prime ministers, a change of monarch, ongoing Covid, the war in Ukraine. Civil servants have stepped up to those challenges and supported the government to the best of their ability. They have responded to instructions and shown great professionalism.
“But the challenge for us now is [rather than] responding to emergencies, we must come back to more measured decision making. We’ve got to remind ourselves what the frameworks are; we’ve got to start looking ahead at what’s coming our way, rather than just responding to events. That’s where the focus needs to be now.”
And talking of focus, Stuart is keen to ensure the civil service retains a wide view. “We mustn’t forget that it’s England, Wales and Scotland,” she says. “I’m exceptionally keen to ensure we’ve got a close and continued working relationship with the Welsh and Scottish governments.
“This is a UK civil service. And the more we can move across the nations and outside London, the stronger it will be.”
As chair of Vote Leave, Gisela Stuart was one of Brexit’s most high-profile figures. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, what are her thoughts on it all?
“If 2016 came again and I was given the same choices, would I do anything differently? No, actually, I wouldn’t,” Stuart tells CSW.
“Vote Leave was important to me. This was not, you know, any other party. It was Vote Leave – the group of cross-party politicians I wanted to campaign with, and no other.”
Stuart continues: “To me, the referendum was about who would have the final say over our laws. It was never about what the laws are. It was about the ability for British voters to have the final say.
“I thought changes needed to happen between countries who were part of the eurozone – the single currency – and those who were not. And if David Cameron had come back with a deal which addressed the need for a change in the institutional architecture of the European Union which was not opt out, which was for the future, I would have said: ‘You know what? You can give that a go.’ But he didn’t.
“So therefore, if you ask me as a politician: ‘Do you wish to reinforce a status quo which you think is not right, or are you going to argue for change?’ And these are the only options. I would argue for change.”