By Joshua.Chambers

24 Jul 2012

The Civil Service Reform Plan encourages civil servants to move between departments and out of government, giving themselves the breadth of experience to excel. Joshua Chambers and Suzannah Brecknell report

Public bodies can suffer from blockages. Veins can become constricted, leaving civil servants struggling to circulate through the system; so the reform plan aims to improve flows, like a beta blocker for government.

The plan sets out various ways to boost civil service circulation. The Fast Stream and senior civil service (SCS) will be “actively managed”, with standardised requirements for promotion into the SCS. Centralised direction of the Fast Stream will see trainees change departments every six months for their first two years.

Some of the plans will eventually come to apply to all grades, Home Office permanent secretary Dame Helen Ghosh told Civil Service Live last week. “I have to say, there’s a slight overemphasis [in the Civil Service Reform Plan] on the senior grades, and not enough on the 70 percent who are out there delivering real services,” she said. “We’ll be setting a single common standard for promotion into the SCS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that rolls out to the same standards, if not the same systems, so that we can all trust promotions.”

There are also plans for civil servants to leave the civil service for a time – blood donations, if you like – to build up experience before being injected back into their departments. Such experience will be essential in top jobs, civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake has said – but at CSL, audience members of lower grades complained that opportunities to move around Whitehall have been hard to find in recent years.

Kerslake replied that the end of restructuring should help here. “I think what happened in this period of reducing the civil service was that there was a bit of closing off. Obviously, jobs didn’t get advertised [externally] whilst the restructuring was going on, and people were reluctant to move out because they weren’t sure if there would be jobs when they got back. I think as we get through the restructuring – and quite a few departments have now broken the back of that – we can open up things a bit. And what will help on this issue of freedom of movement is more consistent capabilities, a common way of measuring people, and a more consistent performance management system.”

Ghosh was also challenged on access to secondments, with a civil servant in the Department for Transport complaining that many departments try to prevent their civil servants from going on secondment.

Ghosh admitted that there is a cultural problem. “It is undoubtedly the case – and I’ve done this as a manager in the past – that if you have a member of staff who perhaps is not one of the best performers,” she recalled, “then you might get them a secondment outside… We used them as a way of moving people out of an organisation temporarily, and then we hoped that they would just drift off and not come back.” This is quite wrong, she said: secondments should be seen as “a targeted part of your development”.

Meanwhile, said Ghosh, civil servants should think about secondments in a more businesslike manner. Occasionally, she said, people had asked for permission to spend six months in, say, a Brazilian rainforest before coming back to a guaranteed job. Her response, though, was sometimes to say: “‘That’s just fun. I’ll lose a valuable member of staff. I can’t guarantee you a job when you come back, so if you want to go and do that, it’s your risk.’ Sometimes, dare I say it, I won’t let them do that, because a business need comes first.” Ghosh added that secondments need to be targeted, and there needs to be a firm commitment from the civil servant that they will return.

Cultural impediments to better circulation are tough to tackle, but if the civil service starts exercising the required managerial and mental muscles, it may be that circulation finally improves.

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