Civil service performance management "inherently adversarial" – PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin

Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee welcomes review of staff appraisal system, and says new inquiry will put a heavy emphasis on leadership skills in the civil service

By Matt Foster

19 Oct 2016

The civil service's system for managing staff performance is "inherently adversarial", according to Bernard Jenkin, chair of parliament's influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, as he backed a government review of the controversial programme.

The organisation's current performance system was launched in 2012 amid claims it would help managers better target bad practice. But it has been sharply criticised by unions for the way it encourages departmental leaders to rank a set proportion of their staff as poor performers.

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer confirmed last month that the performance management system was under review to ensure it aligned with "external best practice and internal changes".

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CSW also revealed earlier this year that a number of pilots aimed at testing changes to the system are either already underway or planned at organisations including the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the National Offender Management Service.

Speaking at the Institute for Government on Wednesday as he launched PACAC's wide-ranging new inquiry into the future of the civil service, Jenkin backed the review, and said staff engagement, as well as encouraging risk and collaboration, needed to become much higher priorities for the civil service's leadership.

"Given that the most successful organisations lay great emphasis on successful employee engagement it is surprising that permanent secretary job descriptions hardly mention measures of engagement as a criteria for success," he said.

"And yet clearly it's a driver of performance. Of all the targets that could be set, this is one measure that could not be gamed."

He added: "I welcome the present review of performance management of individuals. The so-called 'guided distribution', which requires assessors to rank a set proportion of the staff as performing worse than relative to others is inherently adversarial.

"Some organisations manage performance by instruction and tasking, then measurement and assessment followed by reward or punishment.

"Others measure performance by agreeing shared objectives with individuals, supporting and mentoring them through their tasks and then reviewing and learning with them for the future. Ask yourself: which organisation would you prefer to work for?"

Successful and self-sustaining

Jenkin also used his speech to the IfG to repeat his view that the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan launched by the then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude had failed to address "people and leadership", and said it contained "no coherent or comprehensive analysis of what the underlying problems arising from the culture of the civil service might be."

"We have inherited Victorian or Edwardian institutions that must adapt to confront the massive complexity that is the new normal" – PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin

While Jenkin said Maude should be praised for the "great progress" government had made in recent years "in areas such as IT and digitisation of public services" as well as "some very substantial savings by centralising procurement and rationalising the Whitehall estate", the PACAC chair argued that true reform of the civil service needed to come from inside the organisation, rather than being imposed in a top-down fashion.

"We have inherited Victorian or Edwardian institutions that must adapt to confront the massive complexity that is the new normal," he said.  "This requires a different kind of mental agility and adaptability, and the capacity for strategic thinking.

"Some even suggest it requires Whitehall to consider itself to be psychologically and organisationally on a kind of war footing, in order to be able to engage quickly enough with that complexity in the nation and in a global context.

"And for change to be successful and self-sustaining an organisation cannot be dependent on hero leaders or dominant personalities. They can seem so alluring – but they never deliver successful, self-sustaining change. Real change depends on collaboration at scale, within and between teams, rather than on individuals."

"For change to be successful and self-sustaining an organisation cannot be dependent on hero leaders or dominant personalities"

Jenkin said that despite major civil service reform initiatives launched by both Labour and the coalition government, long-standing weaknesses in the organisation still remained.

He said successive governments had opted for a "command-and-control" style when trying to achieve change, with the "autonomy" of Whitehall departments "increasingly subject" to politicians and senior officials in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office seeking to "rain down new policies and initiatives on government departments without the context of operational experience".

The PACAC chair said he also believed that the role of departmental permanent secretaries as the principal policy advisers in departments had been "eclipsed" through outsourcing and the rise of policy experts in the centre of government, and he questioned whether the organisation was doing enough to create career paths that reward expertise.

"The career path used to be in departments," he said. "And it used to be to nurture departmental expertise so that the permanent secretary would, more often than not, come from within that department.

"Now we have a generalist career path whether the Fast Streamers don't even join a department, they're sent around the departments to try and give them as broad an experience as possible," he said. "The churn in posts has gone up as well, and that militates against that expertise."

In 2013 the group of cross-party MPs led by Jenkin – then called the Public Administration Select Committee – urged the government to set up a parliamentary commission into the civil service, arguing that "piecemeal" reform initiatives were "bound to fail" and warning of "divided leadership and confused accountabilities in Whitehall".

However, the government ultimately rejected that suggestion, opting instead to press ahead with its existing reform plan. As a result, Jenkin told the IfG, there had still not been a "comprehensive reconsideration of the purpose, structure, function and future of the civil service" in the 21st century.

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