Editorial: Don’t squander support for change

‘Forced ranking’ is alienating those sympathetic to reform

By Matt.Ross

01 Apr 2014

As the Civil Service Reform Plan neared the end of its long gestation, in April 2012, CSW ran a survey asking civil servants’ views of the reform agenda. Nearly 1,400 responded – and on the subject of performance management (PM), they seemed to want a tougher approach. Asked which three capabilities their department most needed to improve, 59% – the largest group by nine points – named recruitment of good staff and management of poor performers. And asked to rate seven approaches to improving PM, their runaway favourite was strengthening processes to identify and support poor performers: 53% thought it important to improve them. Over a third called for it to be made easier to dismiss poorly performing staff.

Fast forward two years, and Sir Bob Kerslake’s blog on PM has received more than 500 negative responses. We counted the supportive ones on 25 March, and found just 21 - all but two of them posted by HR managers addressing specific criticisms (see news). Something appears to have changed: despite that early support, the new PM system has met a very hostile reaction.

Look more closely, though, and the commentators aren’t raging against the principle of tighter PM: again and again, they complain about the perceived requirement that 10% of staff be designated as poor performers. HR managers respond that this isn’t a mandatory quota. But it was initially presented as one: in June 2012 Sharon White, then the Treasury’s director general of public spending, told the Public Accounts Committee that “for permanent secretaries as for other civil servants, there will be a clearly identified bottom 10% of performers.” The official policy may have softened as it developed, but it’s clear from the comments on Sir Bob’s blog that many managers believe they have little option but to label a tenth of their staff as failing. Parts of the civil service now appear to be operating a ‘forced ranking’ PM system.

Forced ranking was popularised by Jack Welch, CEO of US manufacturer GE, in the 1980s: identifying the top and bottom performers, he said, enables organisations to nurture talent and ditch deadwood. Over the years, though, businesses discovered its many flaws. It fosters competition between team members, creating tensions and deterring mutual support.

It favours the boasters and the glory-hunters over quiet, hard-working employees who focus on getting the job done. It leaves the ambitious and talented staff designated as middle-rankers feeling under-appreciated and demotivated. It emphasises individual over team performance, damaging collaboration. It encourages managers to game the system – hanging onto poor performers, for example, so they can be sacrificed to fill a quota – and requires them to handle endless challenges and complaints from their staff. And it’s unfair on teams whose members are universally effective; furthermore, it gets still more unfair over time, as weak staff are forced out and the quota forces managers to sanction more capable ones.

Within today’s civil service, the idea has yet more disadvantages. Public objectives are often hard to quantify, making individuals’ performance assessments more subjective. Many public servants, motivated by a desire to work together for society’s benefit, don’t respond well to a competitive environment in which staff are forced to battle over spaces in the lifeboat. And forced ranking works best in bloated, unreformed, and growing organisations: that may have been true of the civil service in 2010, but it certainly isn’t now.

It’s easy to see why the policy was first adopted. The approach fits the Tories’ instinctive belief in the benefits of competition, and forces civil service managers to have long-deferred but necessary conversations with time-serving, incompetent and lazy staff. Perhaps the plan’s architects wanted to impose the system for a year or two, stripping away the civil service’s fat then ditching it before the quotas began to bite into healthy flesh. But even in the business world, forced ranking is falling out of favour – it’s been abandoned by big players such as Motorola, Ford, Expedia, Goodyear, Microsoft and, yes, GE – and in a civil service context, it’s fundamentally misconceived. HR chiefs may respond that the approach has been misunderstood – that it’s far less rigid than Sir Bob’s interlocutors suggest – yet many, many civil servants (and, on their evidence, their managers too) clearly experience the 10% figure as a hard target.

Most civil servants would have supported strengthening PM, both to support the struggling poor performers and to dismiss the recalcitrant ones. But the reaction to Sir Bob’s blog reveals huge anger about the 10% target, with commentators having encountered many of the worst flaws of forced ranking. Enthusiasm amongst civil servants for aspects of reform is a rare and valuable asset. The leadership should rethink its approach to PM – before it squanders all the remaining goodwill towards this essential element of civil service reform.

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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