The best civil service leaders value trust, not grades

The civil service has always had great people, argues former senior Cabinet Office official Andrew Greenway – but it must get better at valuing trust over hierarchy


By Andrew Greenway

01 Apr 2016

Creating the conditions for brilliant civil servants to work collectively, learn together and enjoy it enough to stay is not only a question of them sharing the right values. It is about the system and culture that binds individuals together. The civil service has always had great people – but there’s clearly more going on.

The most broken departments I’ve worked in were also the least trustful of colleagues, new or old. The biggest project failures crumbled on the basis of relationships that began with mistrust. If an organisation doesn’t trust itself, why would anyone else?

Our best hope, I think, is to combine great leaders with networks that reward trust.


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The "Prisoner’s Dilemma", used in game theory, shows that rational people might not cooperate even when it is in their best interests to do so. In the dilemma, lags are kept in isolated cells, unable to talk with one another. To win the game, you have to create lines of communication. If you can’t manage it, you get a third party in to help you. 

When you play multiple rounds of the "Prisoner’s Dilemma", a tit-for-tat equilibrium sometimes appears. A screws B, B screws A, and so on*. And this happens quite a lot in the civil service.

Big organisations are full of isolated cells. We call them departments, arms-length bodies, units, professions, teams. At the moment, the best leaders should feel like they’re spending almost all their time scaling these walls. Not a minute of it is wasted. We need them to climb faster than the people building the walls.

Networks only get you part of the way though. Talking to your cellmate doesn’t mean they won’t shaft you later.

"At the moment, civil servants often default to mistrust"

And that’s where leadership comes in, because in a big organisation, you need your stars to flaunt their rules for trust. You need to know what the cultural default is — to trust or not. And you need a way of tailoring that defaults to fit circumstances.

At the moment, civil servants often default to mistrust. As for tailoring, many use grades. When you meet a civil servant, they will often introduce themselves as "I’m the Grade 5 from the Department of X". What they’re saying is: "You can trust my level of competence and decision-making power within this organisation you know nothing about."

Grades are a rubbish rule of thumb for trust. They tell you little about what a person has done or what they could do.

Taking the time to dig deeper is worth it, because life gets easier the more you default to trust and award it on the basis of competence. That means trusting the people in your team to deliver without looking over their shoulder. Trusting that your peers’ motives are honourable. Trusting your senior managers to come down hard if your peers turn out to be bastards. Trusting people to get ideas above their station and follow through on them.

I would love to see the next Government Digital Strategy explain how civil servants will create and maintain trust between one another. It is just as important as how they will build trust with citizens and suppliers. The complaint from certain quarters about the jeans-wearing, Post-it-totin’ digital monkeys is the kind of towering naivety I’m parading right now. 

"I’d like to see your Grade 6 Service Manager stand up in front of the Public Accounts Committee when it all falls over," they say. "I’d like to see the product manager of this cross-government bit be hung out to dry when my service relying on it breaks down."

I would too. It would be much better than having a cadre of people accountable for delivery they may play no direct part in. More importantly, it would put trust back in the hands of everyone who deserves it, at every level of an organisation.

Sometimes trust is misplaced. But if an organisation starts from the assumption it’ll be screwed over, even the best leaders will be scuppered from the start.

* The Prisoner’s Dilemma is more complicated than this

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

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