The civil service's staff grading system has become a "major inhibitor to effective delivery" and should be overhauled, according to the former head of the Department for Work and Pensions Sir Leigh Lewis.
Although the names and job titles for different grades of government officials have changed over time, and do vary between departments, the basic hierarchy of the civil service has changed little since the 1854 Northcote-Travelyan report that formed the basis for the modern organisation.
Writing exclusively for CSW in a new column, Sir Leigh – who joined the civil service in 1973 and rose to become the DWP's permanent secretary from 2005 to 2011 – says that his time outside the organisation has revealed the staff ranking system to be "anachronistic".
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"It is not only ministers coming into government for the first time but also almost any senior figures doing so from the private or third sectors who report that it feels like stepping back in time," Sir Leigh writes.
The former DWP perm sec acknowledged that there were "few better days" in his own career than finally securing promotion to become a Grade 7, saying that "in a system where there are ever fewer opportunities to reward success through pay or bonuses, the prospect of promotion remains one of the few genuine motivators for people to try to do better".
But he warned that the grading structure as it stands leads to talented officials moving on to other departments in order to secure promotion.
"I well remember the number of times as a permanent secretary when I found myself almost literally tearing my hair out (unlike today I still had some to tear) on being told that someone in an absolutely key role in a project or team was going to be moving to another job 'on promotion'," Sir Leigh writes.
"When I banged on endlessly about how crazy this was – those were the days when I suddenly found that my whole office had gone out to lunch – I was invariably told by HR that 'I couldn’t stand in the way of John or Barbara’s promotion'. And so, in the end, I almost always gave in and ended up congratulating John or Barbara on their promotion while inwardly continuing to chunter on about the stupidity of the system."
Sir Leigh also said that the system could inhibit managers who had capable staff willing to take on jobs – but who then found themselves prevented from appointing their preferred candidates because they did not meet the grade requirements.
"This time you think that, for the key task ahead of you, it’s John or Barbara who you need to put in charge because they have the key skills and experience that are needed. But then you’re told that they’re not at the right grade to allow them to take on the role – perish the thought that someone at a lower grade should ever be the boss of someone of a higher grade; World War III is probably easier to organise."
This could, he argued, lead to "obtuse" bureaucratic workarounds for managers who then had to give staff temporary promotions. "Finally you may achieve it but pulling teeth would have been easier. Contrast that again with how relatively simple it appears to be to move people into key roles in the organisations with which I am now involved. "
According to analysis of the current civil service workforce by the Institute for Government, some 40% of the organisation serves in the most junior roles – administrative officer and administrative assistant – with 26% at executive officer level, the next rank up, and 24% at either senior executive or higher executive officer grade.
Nine percent of the civil service workforce serves at Grade 6 and 7, the rank just below the Senior Civil Service, with the SCS making up the remaining 1% of the workforce. Instead of that "inflexible" grade breakdown, Sir Leigh suggests a radical simplification of the workforce structure.
He writes: "I have certainly come to the conclusion – very much too late as it may be – that the grading system in the civil service is now a major inhibitor to effective delivery and, if not swept away, should be dramatically simplified; perhaps to one in which there are just three key distinct levels – delivery, management and senior management – with vastly more flexibility within those levels to reward and assign people on a personal basis."
"Don't flit around"
Sir Leigh's call comes after the head of the Government Digital Service, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, raised similar concerns about the effect of the grading system on digital specialists in the civil service.
Foreshew-Cain told CSW that “hiring the right people” and “making sure they stay” in government would require a challenge to some of the “foundational principles” of the civil service hierarchy, and confirmed that work was underway which could potentially allow those with digital skills to sit outside of the traditional grading system.
He said: “One of the things I am currently looking at, in the space of digital skills, technology skills and data skills, is what is the right structure in a modern civil service? It’s time to question the foundational principles that most of our grade structure really is based upon today."
“That will lead us to designing, I think, a professional model that will have to adapt over time, that is designed to change over time, but will be able to work alongside the traditional model of the civil service. And it will allow us to recognise not just the skills we have, not just the seniority of the skills we have — and value them appropriately outside of the scale of operational delivery and policy advice — but value for them for what they are and what they do for us."
Launching the new Civil Service Workforce Plan last week, then-Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock acknowledged that the civil service needed to do more to build career paths that would allow specialist staff to reach the top grades without having to "flit around" between departments.
“Gone are the days of the gifted amateur," he said. "Today's world is too complex and demands are too high. “I'd say to everyone wanting to build a career in the civil service: specialise; focus on your strengths; become the expert, become the best in the world at what you do. Don't flit around. And under the new plans for a professionalised civil service you will be rewarded.”
Sir Leigh's full column is available to read here