Civil service performance management: survey highlights leaders' frustrations

PCS study of almost 25,000 civil servants, including managers, finds widespread concern about the way performance management is working in practice


By Matt Foster

29 Apr 2016

A new survey of almost 25,000 officials has hinted at widespread dissatisfaction with the civil service’s controversial performance management system, including among line managers.

The organisation’s current system of tracking staff performance was introduced in 2013 in a bid to help managers better deal with poor performers. Under the “guided distribution” model recommended by the Cabinet Office, managers are encouraged to rank 65% of their staff as middling, 25% as performing well, and 10% as poor performers.

But unions have questioned the model, claiming that the requirement to identify poor performers has pressured some managers into “gaming” the system. Specialist union Prospect also produced analysis earlier this month suggesting that BME staff, those with disabilities, and officials working part time were more likely to receive the lowest rankings.


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The new study, carried out by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union — which has long been opposed to the system — is based on a survey of 24,856 members, with just under a fifth (19.5%) of respondents saying they were responsible for line-managing staff through the performance management process.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (94%) said it was unfair that 10% of staff should be ranked as “must improve”, with only 2% saying that requirement was fair.

And while just over a fifth (20.4%) agreed that the performance management process was “a worthwhile exercise”, more than two-thirds (67.3%) disagreed, with the remaining respondents saying they did not know.

”The kinds of processes that use forced rankings have been abandoned in other industries for these very reasons, and they must be scrapped from the civil service” - PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka

The survey also highlighted particular concerns among line managers. More than two-thirds (64.5%) of those who said they managed staff disagreed that the system was “a good way for line managers to be able to manage staff”.

Around three-quarters (75.3%) of managers who responded to the survey said the system placed leaders “in an impossible situation by having to give staff a ‘must improve’ or ‘top’ box marking”.

And just 5.7% of managers agreed that the system generated “healthy competition” between team members, with 83% disagreeing. Only 5.9% said performance management encouraged team work, against 81.4% who disagreed with that statement.

There were also concerns about the impact of the system on day-to-day leadership, with 71.4% of managers agreeing that the performance management system “puts too much pressure on managers”.

Meanwhile, 72.3% of managers agreed that the system left them spending too much time “preparing for and undertaking performance reviews with staff”. Across the wider sample, 55% of respondents said they spend more than two hours preparing for and undertaking their review, with 17% spending more than seven hours on it.

The guided distribution model of allocating 10% of staff as poor performers, 25% as top performers and the rest as middling, also comes in for specific criticism. 

Across the wider sample, 60.5% said that if they could change one thing about the way performance management operates, they would focus on “removing the forced ranking/guided distribution system”.

Just under a fifth (19.8%) said getting rid of all box markings would be their top priority, while 14.2% said they would ensure there was no link between the performance management system and pay.

The union is currently preparing a final report on the findings, which it intends to present to the Cabinet Office.

Speaking to CSW, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said private sector organisations had already moved away from the kind of performance management system used by the civil service.

“These results are devastatingly clear and show a system that is not only unfair, divisive and demotivating, but also time-consuming and ineffective,” he said. “The kinds of processes that use forced rankings have been abandoned in other industries for these very reasons, and they must be scrapped from the civil service.”

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