Four of the biggest government departments are putting an end to the controversial "guided distribution" system for rating the performance of civil servants introduced by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
Since 2012, civil service managers have been required under Cabinet Office guidance to rate a set proportion of their staff as either having "exceeded" expectations, "met" them, or told they "must improve".
The system was introduced to bring private sector discipline into the civil service and help managers better target poor performance. But it has been attacked by both unions and some senior officials since its introduction, with critics arguing that it saps morale and forces managers to arbitrarily assign staff to the different categories. Some unions have also claimed it discriminates against staff with protected characteristics.
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In the most significant change to the system since it was introduced, union officials were on Wednesday evening informed that a new Cabinet Office framework will be introduced in 2017, and CSW has been told by multiple sources that the fresh civil service-wide rules make no mention of guided distribution.
They do, however, grant significantly more flexibility to departmental leaders to design their own performance management systems, and four major government departments – HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office – are understood to have given notice that they will overhaul their system and end guided distribution from April next year.
The move, which will apply to all grades below Senior Civil Service level, has already been welcomed by all three of the main civil service unions.
PCS, which represents rank and file members and has a strong presence in the four affected departments, said in a statement that it had "secured the end of some of the worst elements of performance management".
"We have secured the end of some of the worst elements of performance management" – PCS
Explaining the changes to its members, the union said: "Crucially, the principles do not require departments to operate quotas and relative assessment, where staff are judged against the performance of others and placed in categories, including ‘must improve’ that ultimately puts them at risk of losing their jobs.
"There is also no longer a requirement for the three-box marking system and no mention of a link between performance and pay.
"Four of the largest departments – Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, Ministry of Defence and Home Office – are planning to have new systems in place for 2017. Others may wait until 2018/19 to make changes, but our priority now is to engage in discussions with employers on the details."
The new framework does not, CSW understands, rule out the use of the current guided distribution model by departments, and will allow permanent secretaries to continue to use the present system if they feel it is appropriate to their organisation.
But the move by four of the biggest government employers to make changes to the way they appraise staff has been hailed by Rob O'Neill, assistant general secretary of the FDA union for senior officials, as "a really significant step".
"We'll sit down and work with employers and talk to them about the changes that we think are necessary" – Rob O'Neill, FDA
"We've got to have a system of performance management in the civil service," he said. "But we've got to make sure that it is robust, it is fair, and it works for both employers and staff.
"And we're very keen to sit down and get into a dialogue with departments and with people at the centre to try and help to deliver that system."
O'Neill pointed out that not all departments had yet indicated that they would follow the lead of HMRC, DWP, the Home Office and the MoD.
"Other departments are saying, 'Well, hang on a minute – we need time to reflect, consider, we want an evidence-based approach to any changes that we bring in'," he explained.
"We're a bit disappointed about that, we would obviously like all departments to be moving in this direction. But we'll sit down and work with those employers as well. And talk to them about the changes that we think are necessary."
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Departments are reviewing their current processes and can make changes from April 2017. This is a crucial step in removing red tape across the civil service with a focus on improving performance and delivering better services.
“We’ve listened and learned, and we believe changing the performance management process will allow flexibility in departments to further improve consistency and quality in line management.”
"Triumph for common sense"
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union which represents civil service specialists, meanwhile welcomed the new flexibility for departments, and said the "arbitrary quotas" used in the current system were "seen as toxic both by managers tasked with operating the system and the staff subject to the process".
He added: "Many saw the process as demotivating and unfair and it often led to the perverse situation that those performing to acceptable standards and meeting their objectives were marked down to meet artificial targets."
The Prospect deputy general secretary hailed the move by the Cabinet Office, which was conveyed to union bosses in a meeting on Wednesday, as "a triumph for common sense".
“It is good to see that the arguments and evidence brought forward by Prospect and our members has ultimately been listened to and we will be seeking to engage positively with employers and the Cabinet Office," Graham said.
A PCS spokesperson said the existing regime "should never have been introduced", but said the union was now "very well placed to make sure these are fair and work in the interests of all staff".
The changes are not, a Whitehall source told CSW, merely the result of pressure from unions, but reflect the concerns of senior figures within the civil service itself.
A number of permanent secretaries had become "impatient with this system", the source said, adding: "All of these permanent secretaries have got huge challenges in managing very big organisations and huge financial pressures – they need to take their staff with them. They need their staff to be motivated for the job. They don't want the sorts of distraction that this system has created over the last few years."
Meanwhile an internal Ministry of Defence message, seen by CSW, sheds light on some of the changes that will form part of the 2017 system.
The memo to staff confirms that the department will end the use of relative assessment and will remove quotas for each performance category in its April 2017 system.
"This means that acceptable performers will no longer find themselves in Box 3 [must improve]," the message from a senior MoD figure says.
"But we will still expect our managers to assess performance honestly and fairly. We will continue to tackle poor performance and provide development for those who need more support."
The MoD memo – which calls for staff feedback on what the new system will look like – also says the department will grant greater flexibility in the setting of objectives and "look at other ways to reward you and your team" beyond the use of an end-of-year bonus explicitly linked to performance management ratings.