Calling the bluffers: Andrew Greenway’s challenge for civil service generalists

The civil service is too reliant on generalists bluffing their way to the top. So how do we change that? Ask the bluffers, of course
Photo: PA

By Andrew Greenway

22 Oct 2018

Drop the SCS divide, scrap individual bonuses, make performance management team and outcomes-based, recast the honours system. If that’s the answer, what’s the question? How do you ensure the civil service is run by fewer people like me, essentially.

In recent columns, I’ve argued that the civil service has tilted its top branches too far in favour of generalists. Many senior civil servants are deep experts in knowing how their organisation works, but bluffing too much of everything else. That’s not their fault as individuals. It is a systemic problem that has been around for a very long time.

Disappointingly, given I was hoping this would be seen as an obnoxious and provocative view, few people have taken issue with the basic idea. Those who have objected have two main concerns. The first is that a technocracy led by experts would be no better than a generalist bluffocracy. I completely agree with that. The second is that merely diagnosing a problem is the easy part. Working out what could be done to solve it is more important.


Before trying to answer that, I should caveat all that follows by saying that it is based on anecdote, guesswork and history. If there were easy answers, this wouldn’t be a problem. Given how long the civil service has been accused of favouring generalism, it is a fair guess that the root cause lies in processes and behaviours that go back a long way. There’s not space here to look at everything, so let’s try two canards: hierarchy and reward.

Having a senior civil service distinct from the rest of the organisation is a piece of 150-year old organisational design. It is antiquated and unnecessary. Most problematically from a bluffing point of view, it formalises the idea that there should be a select group of officials who can be held publicly accountable to parliament.

In practice, this means the senior group are selected according to their ability to play the accountability game well – committee hearings and the like. Those hearings inevitably have a style and format that generalists thrive on, partly because parliamentary committees have precious little access to expertise themselves. To make this a less bluffer-friendly environment, start by beefing up the resources behind select committees to help them to ask deep, technical questions, and allow civil servants of any grade to come and answer them.

However, as messing about with civil service grade structures and parliamentary committees is basically electoral Valium, here’s a more populist idea: scrap all individual bonuses for senior civil servants.

The way civil servants are rewarded is something I’ve moaned about in general terms before. Government provides its employees with a one size fits all package of cash, pension, job security and other side benefits. There is no option to change the mixture according to individual’s preferences, and this hard constraint influences the demographics of public service, as well as all kinds of organisational personality traits.

However, flexibility is not really my point about bonuses here. It’s about individualism.

Generalists succeed in places that believe it is important to the pretence that an individual can know enough of everything to make an informed decision, even if the obvious truth is that you need a multidisciplinary team to do so. Virtually no individual civil servant can deliver anything of significance by working alone. Yet civil servants are performance managed individually, and rewarded accordingly, based on measures that are focused on outputs a person can do (‘I wrote a policy paper about fuel poverty’) rather than outcomes only a team can deliver (‘20,000 fewer people are now in fuel poverty thanks to our work’).

So, let’s get rid of output-led individual performance management. Its only value is as a blunt instrument for getting rid of exceptionally under-performing staff, frankly, and that’s a whole other challenge. Instead, move to team-based, outcome-led performance assessment. Award bonuses on the basis of that. If those bonuses have to be financial, give the same amount of cash to every member of team regardless of grade. Though seeing as times are rough financially, perhaps it would be better to hand out honours rather cash. Very few HEOs have ever been made Sir or Dame. Many have deserved it a great deal more than several ennobled permanent secretaries that spring to mind.

The civil service is far from alone in being overseen by leaders with a gift for blagging. All large organisations were once small, working on something they were very good at. Their early growth was based on personal networks; people they know can make them stronger by covering gaps and weaknesses.

But then they got bigger, their work affected more people, and became more complex. Scale encourages them to systematise. Complexity encourages them to bring in generalists who can dance elegantly over the top of it.

The systems and processes designed to help an institution scale up, unless very carefully handled, tend to lock in the same answers. An organisation starts hiring and shaping people in its own image.

That is a story related time and again. For any large organisation, there seem to be three laws of bluffing to bear in mind. First, an organisation’s behaviour is ultimately rooted in whatever profession best met the original need it was set up to fulfil – the civil service continues to prize the skill of ministerial servitude over organisational management or operational delivery.

Secondly, an organisation’s tendency to reward bluffing grows in proportion with the size of the population it affects, since generalists are best for obscuring complexity and diversity.

Finally, the degree of bluffing can be mitigated by making the decision-makers in that organisation more reflective of the population it affects.

One final word on challenging the grip of generalism. I firmly believe that the majority of senior civil servants would recognise most of this challenge, if not necessarily agree with my remedies.

For them to do anything about it, what they lack, more than anything else, is time. Time to read, reflect, learn, or simply step out of the day-to-day organisational maelstrom. Being a senior official or minister is a very hard gig. It is no coincidence that the most thoughtful reflections on the business of government have come from ministers who have stepped away. It is not surprising that the politicians with the greatest zeal for institutional change are those who have returned to government for a second go. Officials are rarely any different.

So perhaps the simplest way to challenge the bluffocracy is to give the whole ‘Top 200’ six months off and see what they come back with. I’m sure they’ll have better ideas than mine.

Read the most recent articles written by Andrew Greenway - Andrew Greenway: How GDS conquered the world

Share this page