Civil service performance management should value regular, "high quality" conversations between leaders and their staff, chief people officer Rupert McNeil has said, as he gave his first public comments on the looming overhaul of Whitehall's controversial employee appraisal system.
Unions last month hailed the announcement that four major government departments — HMRC, the DWP, the MoD and the Home Office — are to ditch the "guided distribution" system brought in under former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, which asked managers to regularly rank a set proportion of their staff as either having "exceeded" expectations, "met" them, or told they "must improve".
Critics of the scheme, brought in by Maude to try and help managers better deal with poor performance and imitate private sector practice, argued that it undermined morale and was both time-consuming and potentially discriminatory.
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The Cabinet Office last month published a fresh government-wide framework which omitted any mention of guided distribution and handed more flexibility to departments to design their own systems. The changes are expected to take effect in April.
McNeil, who was brought into Whitehall last year from the private sector to head up the civil service's HR function, told CSW at an Institute for Government event on Wednesday that the guided distribution system had been "appropriate to a particular time".
"The fundamental thing about performance management is that it's actually about high-quality conversations between the manager and the managed" - Rupert McNeil, civil service CPO
"I think it's very clear that the performance management process in the civil service, as in many other organisations, had gone through a period where it had been necessary to put in more structure," he said.
But the chief people officer said the Cabinet Office now had "the opportunity to move to a new approach that recognises the very different contexts" across departments.
"What we're putting in place is a set of common principles which departments will need to follow," he said. "We've developed that with our union partners, and by looking at a number of pilots across the civil service which some agencies produced, which were very effective.
"The fundamental thing about performance management is that it's actually about high-quality conversations between the manager and the managed. And imposing too much artificiality on top of that is counter-productive.
"I think we're moving towards that. It's linked as well to [...] having really good leaders. And really good leaders can select well and they can performance-manage well. And so we're moving towards that, and I think it's a great development."
The IfG's programme director Jill Rutter, a former senior official at departments including Defra and the Treasury, told McNeil that dealing with poor performance had been "the hardest thing" for managers to do during her own spell in government, saying HR teams would often tell departmental leaders: "It's your responsibility to deal with it."
Asked by Rutter how he intended to ensure that managers were given support to "genuinely" deal with poor performance in light of the new framework, McNeil stressed that the civil service "absolutely cannot compromise" on tackling bad practice.
But he said the trials for revamped performance systems that had been carried out across government already showed that, where leaders do have concerns about their staff, "intervention needs to happen earlier", with systems no substitute for "high quality, great, first line management".
"If I take the example of the Valuation Office Agency which has been doing pilots, what they've done is go for much more frequent discussions and taking action sooner," he said.
McNeil added: "The civil service is not unique in this by any means, [in having to challenge] the idea that this is, at best, a half-yearly process and sometimes an annual process, when in fact it's the job of management, in real-time, to make people as successful as they can be."