Sir Leigh Lewis: Is it time to overhaul the civil service grade system?

In the first of his occasional opinion pieces on issues that matter to officials, former permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis takes aim at the  civil service grading system 


By Sir Leigh Lewis

19 Jul 2016

To say we live in a changing world is the ultimate cliché. Love and marriage may indeed have once gone together like a horse and carriage but they clearly no longer automatically do. That is just one of the countless changes that have ­occurred in the past 50 years in the society around us.

But some universal truths continue. In my former world of the civil service, the system of ranking people by grade seems as strongly entrenched today as it was when I joined in 1973. Wondering whether it might all have moved on in the five years since I retired, I emailed a civil service friend still very much in harness to ask if the system had become any more flexible over that time. “No change at all to the ­grading structure. Sorry. Unhelpful!” was the verbatim reply. 

Of course any system that has survived this long must have something going for it and its longevity is not in itself an argument for change. But I have been struck from my own experience over the past five years of holding non-executive roles in two major commercial organisations and on the board of two national charities by just how anachronistic the civil service grading system now looks from the outside. It is not only ministers coming into government for the first time but also almost any senior figures doing so from the private or third sectors who report that it feels like stepping back in time. 


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Does it matter, though? It is a highly regulated system, certainly, but it’s one that insiders know how to operate, and indeed benefit from. It also delivers prizes. There were few better days in my own career than when I finally secured a promotion to the next level and proudly went home to tell my other half that I was now a Grade 7! And in a system where there are ever fewer opportunities to reward success through pay or bonuses, the prospect of promotion remains one of the few genuine motivators for people to try to do better.

"It is a highly regulated system, certainly, but it’s one that insiders know how to operate, and indeed benefit from."

But it also comes at a price. I well remember the number of times as a permanent secretary when I found myself almost literally tearing my hair out (unlike today I still had some to tear) on being told that someone in an absolutely key role in a project or team was going to be moving to another job “on promotion”. When I banged on endlessly about how crazy this was – those were the days when I suddenly found that my whole office had gone out to lunch – I was invariably told by HR that “I couldn’t stand in the way of John or Barbara’s promotion”. And so, in the end, I almost always gave in and ended up congratulating John or Barbara on their promotion while inwardly continuing to chunter on about the stupidity of the system.

Contrast that with the private or third sectors. In similar circumstances they would no more contemplate moving a key individual at a critical juncture than they would running naked through the boardroom. Indeed they would use all the avenues open to them – pay, bonus, promises of future advancement – to keep the individual in place until the key project or outcome had been delivered. 

And take another practical example. This time you think that, for the key task ahead of you, it’s John or Barbara who you need to put in charge because they have the key skills and experience that are needed. But then you’re told that they’re not at the right grade to allow them to take on the role – perish the thought that someone at a lower grade should ever be the boss of someone of a higher grade; World War III is probably easier to organise. 

So then, if you’re lucky, someone comes up with the idea of giving them “temporary promotion”. But here the rule book is normally at its most obtuse. There are conditions to be satisfied, procedures to be followed, maximum permitted ­periods that someone can be on “TP” (you know it’s bad when it has its own acronym). Finally you may achieve it but pulling teeth would have been easier. Contrast that again with how relatively simple it appears to be to move people into key roles in the organisations with which I am now involved. 

And if these are concrete examples, they still don’t get to the heart of just how inflexible the current grading system is and how all-pervasive is its ­effect as a conditioner of behaviours and a brake on the effective deployment of people.

Can this be changed? Should it be changed? I think the second question is easier than the first. I have certainly come to the conclusion – very much too late as it may be – that the grading system in the civil service is now a major inhibitor to effective delivery and, if not swept away, should be dramatically simplified; perhaps to one in which there are just three key distinct levels – delivery, management and senior management – with vastly more flexibility within those levels to reward and assign people on a personal basis. 

But can it be changed? That is the $64,000 question. It certainly won’t be easy. And it will only happen if those who now sit round the permanent secretary table want and will it to be. But if they do I think it may be a change whose time has come. 

Read the most recent articles written by Sir Leigh Lewis - 'There will be many tougher days than this': an ex-perm sec's open letter to Simon Case

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