Civil servants express frustration with performance management in CSW-Reform survey

Officials warn the civil service is "not taking talent and performance management seriously" as Reform paper urges vision for “true culture of excellence”
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By Tevye Markson

01 May 2024

Civil servants have raised concerns about performance management in a survey conducted by CSW and public services think tank Reform.

Less than one in ten officials who took the poll said they think the civil service manages performance well, while a majority said they don’t think the civil service takes talent and performance management seriously.

These concerns were pronounced at all grade levels, in all departments, and both among line managers and those without management responsibilities.

The survey accompanies a paper by Reform, Making the grade, which urges the civil service to move towards a “true culture of excellence, prioritising high performance above everything else and acting swiftly to tackle poor performance”, and makes 25 recommendations to help achieve this.

Two-thirds of the 771 respondents to the poll said they think line managers are incentivised to move poor performers around rather than manage them out​, while six in ten respondents said they were aware of disciplinary issues where action should have been taken but had not been. On the other side of the spectrum, less than a third agreed with the statement "talented people rise to the top of the civil service".

A subset of questions directed only at line managers found similar levels of frustrations about the support that supervisors get to manage poor performance. More than three-quarters of line managers said they don’t think processes for managing poor performance or disciplinary issues are straightforward and efficient, and a majority said they don’t feel supported through training to manage poor performance and disciplinary matters.

Views on line managers themselves, on the other hand, were more positive, with six in ten respondents saying they have “a good line manager and feel supported by them to progress”.

Some questions elicited more mixed feelings. Asked if "there are opportunities to progress which make a future career in the civil service an exciting prospect", 44% agreed and 42% disagreed. Meanwhile, line manages were divided when asked if they feel supported by their leadership team to manage poor performance and disciplinary matters, with 39% agreeing with the statement and 38% disagreeing.

Reform's accompanying report makes a series of recommendations to improve how the civil service attracts and develops exceptional talent, and to increase the managing out of those who are not up to standard.

These include creating new dedicated talent roles, introducing a mid-career fast stream – an idea recently trumpeted by the government’s chief scientific adviser – and setting up a new leadership development scheme.

Recommendations to ensure poor performance is tackled include increasing the regularity of formal performance reviews to at least twice a year; and setting up a dedicated performance unit within each department's HR function to support line managers in initiating and delivering performance-improvement processes.

The report also suggests the Treasury should provide a dedicated pot of cash available to departments to exit poor performers, to demonstrate it is prepared to fund severance payments and legal costs.

Reform researcher Sean Eke has set out the report’s highlights in more detail in an op-ed for CSW.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We remain committed to attracting and retaining the most talented people to build a highly skilled and capable civil service and we pledged in our latest People Plan to recruit from the widest pool of expertise.

“There are robust policies in place to tackle poor performance, however we know there is more to do to make sure we have a civil service that can deliver excellent results for the taxpayer. 

"We will carefully consider all Reform's recommendations, and the minister for the Cabinet Office will address some of these in a keynote speech at Reform's annual conference next week."

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