Half of Fast Stream recruits will be STEM graduates, Simon Case says

Cab sec reveals reforms to this year's Fast Stream recruitment in university lecture
Simon Case. Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

17 Feb 2023

Half of the civil service’s next cohort of fast streamers will be science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates, the cabinet secretary has said.

Other changes to the Fast Stream this year include piloting regional schemes in northern England and updated training for new recruits to focus on digital, finance and commercial skills, Simon Case said, in a lecture that was published online yesterday. 

Speaking at his second annual lecture at Bristol University on 25 January, Case also revealed all civil servants will get a day of data training this year, labelling data his “obsession”.

He also set out his desire for government to get better at “joined-up thinking” both between departments and with other sectors.

Putting STEM ‘at heart’ of government

Getting more STEM graduates into the Fast Stream was one of three “fundamental changes” to the civil service graduate scheme outlined in Case’s speech, which was delivered in partnership with The Strand Group.

“Half of the next cohort will be STEM graduates: not just in a science and technology specialism, but in our generalist Fast Stream – half will be STEM graduates,” Case said.

“We will bring in the brightest and best scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians from across the country into the heart of all the policymaking and design work around public service.”

To do this, the Fast Stream has launched a new pathway – "generalist – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)" – to compliment the "generalist" pathway.

CSW asked the Cabinet Office in early December if there would be a target for the proportion of Fast Streamers with science and technology backgrounds but the department chose not to answer the question, instead stating: "The Fast Stream offers an important avenue to attract the most talented young people to a range of specialist and leadership development opportunities.”

In December, Sarah Healey – then then Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport's permanent secretary – said in a lecture at Kings College that the government needs more civil servants with a science and technology background who “can better understand the nature of new technology and better assess the impact it may have”.

Healey, who was appointed as perm sec at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in a department reshuffle last week, praised proposals to reform the Fast Stream to bring in a higher proportion of these individuals to the generalist policy profession.

But she added that in order to retain these skills, the civil service must also create career paths and development offerings which will “recognise and reward their particular expertise”. These skills must be brought in at all levels, she said, echoing chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s call for “the same revolution in scientific capability across the civil service that was previously achieved for economic capability”.

No word on new assessment centres

Case said the civil service is also now piloting regional Fast Stream schemes in Darlington and Yorkshire and updating training for fast streamers to concentrate on foundational skills in digital, finance, and commercial.

Case did not mention reforms which were trumpeted by Rishi Sunak during last summer’s Conservative Party leadership election, however.  

During the election, the now-prime minister promised to reform the Fast Stream by mandating that a third of placements have an operations element and creating assessment centres in every region of the UK. Case did not mention these reforms in his speech.

CSW has asked the Cabinet Office if these reforms are being worked on or have been scrapped. The department had not responded at the time the story was published.

Case calls for ‘data ninja’ revolution

The cabinet secretary also set out plans to bring data to the fore, saying “making better use of data… is an obsession of mine”.

Announcing that all civil servants will get a day of data training this year, he said: “Our data training is not just for specialists or graduates. It’s far too important for that.

“All civil servants – half a million of them, from apprentices right up to permanent secretaries – will this year complete at least one day of dedicated data training. And I know that doesn’t sound like a lot – one day of data training – but that’s 500,000 days of training in a year.

“Because we do need our data experts, the 'ninjas' as I call them. The reality is that every civil servant needs to be better equipped to use data in how they solve problems and design and deliver public services.”

‘We need to get better at joined-up thinking’

Case picked out better collaboration as another way the civil service can improve.

“We are getting better at joining up thinking across departments, professions and functions – but we do need to do more of it, and faster, because the problems we are tackling don’t fit neatly under any one department.

“The fact we need to break down silos – well, that’s a well-worn Whitehall trope,” Case said.

“We are getting better at joining up thinking across departments, professions and functions – but we do need to do more of it, and faster, because the problems we are tackling don’t fit neatly under any one department.”

He pointed to the government’s work in the criminal justice system to improve outcomes for victims of rape and serious sexual offences, which has seen the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, Crown Prosecution Service and police working together, as an example of good joined-up working. This has seen the

“There’s always more to do in an area like this. But through the work that partners have done under the Government Rape Review, the Joint National Action Plan and something called Operation Soteria we’ve already made a difference,” Case said.

“It has helped to increase the number of cases that the police send to the CPS for a charging decision or early advice by 69%; and to increase the number of suspects that are charged by 86% in just two years – exactly what victims have asked for.”

The head of the civil service said the government also needs to work more “across institutional boundaries”.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme is an example of good collaborative work that stretches both across government and outside government, he said.

“Here, it’s interesting, the government chose not to be the big-state player of the pandemic era but instead a light-touch digital facilitator,” he added.

“Ukrainians are matched via an online platform with UK sponsors offering up accommodation; they receive an allowance for that generosity of spirit. It’s an interesting model of reaching across institutional boundaries to solve a collective problem – in government, a multidisciplinary Whitehall team, working with local authorities, charities and private sector partners; each providing a key piece of the puzzle.”

Case also highlighted a partnership with Bristol University where academics and civil servants are working on new methods for swarm robotics that could help protect the UK against espionage.

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