Gisela Stuart eyes recruitment shake-up as first civil service commissioner

Former MP and Vote Leave chair sets out stall as ministers’ preferred choice to lead Civil Service Commission
Baroness Gisela Stuart. Screengrab: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

04 Feb 2022

The government’s preferred choice to become first civil service commissioner has told MPs of the need to “revisit” recruitment principles for top-flight jobs in Whitehall and for better understanding of the civil service code.

Former Labour MP and Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart – who now sits as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords – said she believed the civil service needed to reorient itself towards the needs of the future, and improve its offer to the next generation of leaders.

Stuart’s comments came at a pre-appointment hearing before members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday, where she was grilled on her suitability to succeed Sir Ian Watmore at the helm of the Civil Service Commission.

She became the first politician in more than 100 years to be lined up for the role when her status as the preferred candidate was announced in December. At the time, Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas argued Stuart’s status as an “ally or ideological fellow-traveller” of prime minister Boris Johnson called her impartiality into question and made her look like “the wrong appointment”.

At Thursday’s one-hour session, Stuart said it was “becoming clearer” that while the first civil service commissioner should be someone who understood the civil service, “it’s increasingly felt they probably shouldn’t be someone who comes from the civil service”.

Asked about impartiality, she told PACAC members the civil service tradition was important and said last year’s Declaration on Government Reform had seen Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case reiterating their support for it. But she cautioned that impartiality could not be viewed in isolation and was not the only important attribute for civil servants.

“Impartiality also has to be underpinned by skills and ability to do the job,” she said. “And therefore I think the recruitment principles are something where you may want to revisit, in terms of whether it still embraces the principles required from the civil service. But I don’t in any sense undermine the impartiality.”

During the session, Stuart broached civil service skills shortages – particularly in relation to data – and suggested she believed it was time to reorient the service away from being an organisation that prized generalists.

“If we reward the Senior Civil Service for its generalist skills, they will acquire generalist skills,” she said. “If we have a system where promotion depends on moving up grades, and that’s the only way you can do it, then that is the system; and if we want that to change we should not blame the civil service. It’s the markers and the conditions which we set.”

Stuart predicted “enormous changes” ahead but said that the next decade would also be “enormously exciting” for the next generation of civil servants.

“I think the civil service, in attracting the best and the brightest, actually has to convey more of a sense of ‘we will use your skills and we will give you an opportunity to do your best for your country’,” she said. “I think the declaration did capture some of that.”

Stuart said that, despite the need to embrace change in the civil service, there were many positives that the organisation should retain from the past five years of unprecedented pressure – from delivering Brexit to responding to the pandemic.

“The challenge for us is to realise what the important things are for the future and focus on those, but learn from some of the upheaval of the past,” she said.

“One of the things we should really have to learn is how successful the civil service was in bringing teams together under conditions which were really high pressure, and very difficult to predict what would happen next, and make sure that gets embedded.”

Opening up director-level recruitment

Stuart said one area of focus she was particularly keen to pursue was opening director-level recruitment to external candidates as well as existing civil servants. She suggested the move could help to cut down on government’s use of consultants.

“At the moment, all perm sec and all director-general positions are external open competitions by default, but not at director level,” she told MPs.

“I would hope that we can move so that the same applies at director level. I think the more we can attract the skills into the civil service and allow them to deliver their best, the more we take away this notion that we always have to turn to the private sector.

“It’s an interchange to move in and move out. This is one of the things I would certainly argue for.”

Stuart also said she believed the recruitment process for future cabinet secretaries should become more transparent and “in line with the recruitment of a permanent secretary”.

Civil servants need better understanding of the civil service code

On Monday, Cabinet Office second perm sec Sue Gray’s interim report on the Partygate affair found some staff had felt “unable to report or challenge poor conduct”. Stuart was asked what she could do as first commissioner to aid whistle-blowers and uphold the civil service code more generally.

Stuart said that for her, “success” meant people felt comfortable raising issues of concern within their own department – rather than viewing the Civil Service Commission as the final stop for propriety and ethics.

“Observance and awareness of the code has to be at every level,” she said.

Stuart said the Civil Service People Survey indicated that awareness of the code was “insufficient” and on a downwards trajectory. She said the commission may need to intervene to boost understanding, in the same way it did by running special workshops looking at recruitment principles.

“If I’m allowed to take up the position, I would want to take a good look at what is being done and whether more can be done,” she said in relation to awareness of the civil service code.

“Ultimately, success is that everyone feels that within their department the structures are in place to whistle-blow or complain and that it is handled properly rather than thinking the answer is to move it somewhere else.”

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