“We thought we’d be pushing at an open door and everyone would think this was a good idea.” Ian Watmore is looking back on the work that he has described as one of his proudest achievements in five years as first civil service commissioner.
The idea, set out as one of his strategic priorities when he took up the role in 2016, was to use civil service recruitment to support specific disadvantaged groups, supporting them to find stable employment while bringing new skills and experiences into departments.
The Going Forward into Employment programme, run by the Cabinet Office and CSC, allows departments to flex the usual principles of civil service recruitment and appoint people whose "circumstances and previous life chances make it difficult for them to compete for appointments on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, without further work experience and/or training opportunities”.
Individuals can be employed on contracts lasting up to two years, at which point they might move full time into the civil service – going through normal recruitment channels – or use the skills they have developed to move into other jobs. Broadly, the GfiE work focuses on three main groups: ex-offenders, including those who have left prison within the last two years; veterans; and care leavers. But the principle of helping disadvantaged individuals to flourish while meeting skills gaps in departments can be used for a wide range of groups. The 27 “Exception 2” schemes now running across 13 departments include two supporting autistic people, a pilot scheme working with homeless people in Manchester, and a Defra project giving work experience to people who have Down’s Syndrome.
GfIE’s senior responsible owner, Andrew Ashworth, tells CSW that a large part of his team’s work is educating – rather than persuading – departments to work out which skills gaps the scheme could help them fill. Recently, for example, the team has been discussing how the Driver and Vehicles Standards Agency could recruit veterans or prison leavers with mechanical experience.
“It's about understanding departments and understanding the talent that's out there and trying to match the two things together. So you get this perfect picture as you move along,” says Ashworth, who initially joined the team as a project manager in 2017.
For the men and women employed through the schemes, the chance to flourish through meaningful work can be life changing – over a third of young people leaving care are not in education, employment or training, compared to just 13% of all 19-25 year olds. Care leavers also make up 24% of the homeless population. Fewer than one in five ex-offenders secure a job within a year of leaving prison – though those who do find a job are less likely to reoffend.
"It's good for the individual, and it's good for the civil service because it brings a diversity of thinking and experience into the system"
So the schemes bring, Watmore says, a “triumvirate” of benefits. “One, it's good for the individual, and I think most of us who join the public services care about that sort of stuff. Secondly, it's good for the civil service because it brings a diversity of thinking and experience into the system. And thirdly, it's good for government policy because nearly all government policy in these areas is to improve the life chances of people through stable employment.”
Despite this win-win-win dynamic, the GfIE tram soon found resistance to the idea when work began in 2017. For Watmore, the experience was frustratingly familiar, having experienced similar resistance when he was in the business department in 2009, working to bring the first apprentices into the civil service.
As in 2009, the work to bring in ex-offenders was often greeted positively at first but concerns would surface as it actually looked like happening he says “Actually, there were quite a few people who were not sure what this was quite what we should be doing. We even had sort of conflicting messages from unions. Centrally, they were in favour, [but] locally not so sure.”
But by then, unlike in 2009, Watmore had a particular advantage in his quest to use civil service employment to improve social mobility. He had become the man in charge of regulating recruitment into the service, and he was determined to use that position to support rather than stifle change.
"The commission could be seen by some as ‘the computer that says no’,” he says “But we took a view right at the beginning of my time here that while there would be times when we need to say ‘no’ – and that role is important – more often, nine times out of 10, we wanted to be the organisation that said ‘yes, and this is how you can achieve your outcomes’.”
So with Watmore as its champion, the GfIE team set about overcoming challenges, from the general – risk was a big concern, and the team brought in prison governors to carry out assessments which addressed this – to the specific and practical, such as being unable to put individuals on the payroll because they didn’t have a bank account or having to drive across town and collect identity documents for the soon-to-be new recruits.
When you start a project like this, says Watmore, “The difference between nought and one is huge – when there's nobody there and then you try to get one person in, you encounter most of the challenges. And once you've solved them once you know they're soluble – it's then about being able to do that in a more mass-market way.”
So the work needed now to recruit more than 100 individuals into the service has not been 100 times the work needed for the first two, but Ashworth says the question of how to ensure sustainable growth as momentum builds is still pertinent. “You can’t have people driving around town [anymore],” he says, “you need to think of a different way of doing things.” Likewise, those risk assessments for the first ex-offenders couldn’t cover every new candidate and as the number of people brought in has grown, so too has the variety of possible risks which needed to be addressed.
"We make sure we provide support and touch points for them because, as much as it’s about getting in through the exception route, for me it's more important that we help them get on, build a career and make the right choices"
The numbers are set to grow even faster since the government pledged – as part of the Beating Crime plan published in July – to recruit 1,000 prison leavers into civil service roles by the end of 2023. The GfIE team is working to agree another commitment around recruiting veterans with the Office of Veterans Affairs. But as the schemes grow, Ashworth says, his team also wants to ensure they are still supporting each participant.
“From day one when a person comes in, we stay in touch with that individual right up to the last day when they become a permanent member of staff, or choose a different route,” he says. “We make sure we provide support and touch points for them because, as much as it’s about getting in through the exception route, for me it's more important that we help them get on, build a career and make the right choices.”
Watmore agrees that it’s not just getting in but getting on that matters, and from the start the goal of the programme was not just ticking a recruitment target but making a real impact for people and departments.
"We had two objectives early. One was: we were going to make sure that if we gave people work through [GfiE], it was proper work,” he says. “It was a proper job that needed filling in the civil service by somebody, and why not this person? Secondly, although we had to have a time limit of two years [for the initial employment], apart from that, once they're in, they're in. They don't go around with a label on saying they are an ex-veteran or were at Wormwood Scrubs or whatever. Once they're in, it's all about how the system genuinely looks at people and makes the most of their talents. That applies to all sorts of people, not just people coming from the scheme. Let's get the richness of their whole experience, and we can be a much richer civil service.”
It’s an issue Watmore clearly feels passionate about, and he’s used his time in the Civil Service Commission to good effect. Of the 100 people recruited so far through the Exception around 20 have gone on to permanent employment in the civil service.
Not everyone has reported what they did after taking part in a scheme, Ashworth says, but he knows that some of those who joined in early 2018 have gone on to earn multiple civil service promotions and built a new life outside work.: “There have equally been some who joined us and left after around 18 months, taking up better external jobs following the experiences they have gained with us –an equally great outcome,” he adds.
As Watmore prepares to step down from the Civil Service Commission, he can look back on this work with pride. He’s clear that the programme’s success has been down to “people actually on the ground nation making this stuff happen with passion and commitment”, but also that his role as a committed and steady sponsor was important. “It's quite easy for this [sort of work] to be launched by somebody and then the sponsor, whether that’s a minister, a perm sec, a commissioner, goes off to do other things, The people on the ground poor are left trying to make something happen while everyone else is asking “where's your authority coming from?” You need continuity of senior sponsorship, at least for the first period.”
Watmore has provided that sponsorship, and as he leaves the GfIE will be falling under the remit of Civil Service Commission chief executive Peter Lawrence. So the senior support will remain strong, but even so Watmore is clear that the commission is just an enabler – real change comes from departments. “We can change the rules in order to allow people to get in. But to get on, that isn't a commission rule-based thing, that's about the support and skills
-matching that Andrew is talking about. So this work is a good example of how the commission can lead, but it needs the civil service as a whole to pick up the baton and drive forward.”