Test of the best: The past, present and future of civil service entrance exams

How we decide who joins the civil service has a profound impact on the work of government, argues Andrew Greenway. If there wasn’t a good reason before to think hard about how we assess and predict civil servants' competence, there certainly is now...
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By Andrew Greenway

21 Jul 2023

It is hard to imagine a life without exams. The infinite solitude of being sat at a desk, in front of a few sheets of paper. We have all put our pens in a clear plastic case. We’ve all heard of the person who forgot to turn the page until five minutes remaining, only to find several unanswered questions. The one who claimed to have a secret calculator watch and cheated. The hapless over-sleeper. Exams feel like one of life’s theatrical set-pieces. They are plays we’ve all performed in.

In their earliest form, exams weren’t there to torture everyone. They were set to determine who should take part in the business of government. Administrative power was handed out according to competence rather than connections, cramming rather than circumstance. This idea was the basis of modern bureaucracy. It meant nations would henceforth be run by civil servants, rather than courtiers. Their legitimacy to wield power over others derived from what they knew, not who they knew. As we blunder into an era where machines can outsmart us at the tests we set, perhaps now would be a good time to examine exams more closely.

Britain took a while to get on board with trial by examination. Until well into the 19th century, the standards imposed on those aspiring to officialdom were not exacting. Oxbridge was the pool from which the country’s brains were expected to emerge. Make it through there and you could expect to be poured into moulds within the complexifying machines of government, commerce and academia. But quality assurance by the universities was casual, to say the least. In Cambridge, persons of noble birth were let off from taking the harder papers in philosophy and mathematics, so as not to twist their blue blood. Oxford, meanwhile, had no real degree examinations at all before 1800.

The idea of bringing exams into Westminster came from India, who in turn borrowed it from the Chinese – with homage to that tradition still paid in the term “mandarins”. Ironically, as the brutal, centuries-old practice of imperial examinations was falling apart in Beijing, Thomas Babington Macaulay decided a dose of meritocracy was what the Indian civil service needed. As well as using Delhi as a laboratory, Macaulay played a hand in Whitehall’s own radical reforms. In 1840, shortly after he returned from the subcontinent, Macaulay lobbied hard to secure a job for his brother-in-law at the Treasury. That brother-in-law was Charles Trevelyan, who went on to apply Clever Tom’s ideas at home.

Exams quickly became part of the individual and collective identity of the civil service. Flick through the entries of significant public servants in the Dictionary of National Biography and their (usually stellar) entrance exam performance will be noted in the preamble, alongside their parentage and Oxbridge college. Passing those exams meant entering a club; a Who’s Who where all the members were terribly good at passing exams.  

The civil service exams were tough; notoriously so. A very kind colleague passed me copies of the exams taken by her mother, an Oxford graduate applying for a post in the Colonial Office in 1953. The “Present Day” paper, “intended to test the general awareness of current affairs of the educated person who follows them intelligently”, is a migraine-inducing challenge. In 90 minutes, candidates were asked to knock off three crisp, cogent mini-essays. Questions included: “What consistent aims do you think should guide British taxation, and how far can they do so at present?” and: “Recent legislation on horror comics suggest that it is hoped that people can be made good by statute. How far is this practicable or desirable?” The Present Day paper was one of the five my friend’s mum had to sit. The rest were even more fiendish. I would love to see Wednesday Morning Colleagues have a bash at these now. Perhaps it could be squeezed into the next away-day.

Squint a little, and even in post-war Britain the demands of entrance didn’t differ all that much from the Confucian wrangling of the mandarins. A solid grounding in the Greats; supreme felicity with a pen in hand; the ability to understand and follow arcane, if not actually unwritten expectations – these were the yardsticks of statecraft. Master these traits, the logic went, and you deserve some kind of power.

As Whitehall drifted into managerial territory in the wake of the 1968 Fulton report, the rhythm has changed. Today, the ritual is broader and soggier in focus. There are seven common psychometric tests in circulation, covering verbal and numerical reasoning, work strengths, casework, customer service, and judgement. Few people do the full set – what you take depends on the role you apply for. Like the essays, there aren’t always right answers to all the questions, but there’s a fair number of wrong ones.

Examinations are an inherently discriminatory act, a construct designed to consistently admit some characteristics while excluding others. The echoes of tests gone by rattle through the civil service’s culture. Being thoughtful about who they rule in and out matters, because what Whitehall chooses to test ultimately defines those whose judgement wields influence. The civil service’s diversity and inclusion challenges are well known, and methods of selection for entry and promotion are pertinent to that.

Times are changing: the recently relaunched Fast Stream now aims to recruit more science and technology graduates to its generalist stream, though it’s unclear how effectively the process has been reformed to encourage this. But we are also now facing a world where we will need to make decisions about discriminating not just between types of people, but between people and machines. Left unchecked, civil service selection procedures will rapidly fall further out of date. If there wasn’t a good reason before to think hard about how we assess and predict human competence – and to consider what human competence means in an era where ChatGPT writes better briefings than you do – there certainly is now.

This article wasn’t written by ChatGPT. The next one might be. So might your next submission to the secretary of state. Why bother testing Whitehall’s next generation on their ability to prioritise an in-tray or trot out competency-based examples, if technology can do a quicker, better job of both? And if that’s true, how will you select that next generation? Looking for an insatiable curiosity of technology’s promise and perils might be a good place to start.

Andrew Greenway is a founding partner at Public Digital, writer and former senior civil servant

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