Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has called for a change to civil service performance management to stop Whitehall bosses from gaming the system.
Under the current model – introduced in April 2013 – managers are strongly encouraged to rank 10% of their staff as poor performers, 65% as middling and 25% as performing well.
It has been claimed, however, that some managers are subverting the system of distribution by putting only the newest employees – or those about to leave – in the bottom 10%.
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In an exclusive interview with CSW, to be published in full later this week, Maude said that while he had seen an improvement in bosses’ “gaming” of the distribution of the bottom 10%, the system should be further changed to make this less likely.
“I think it has improved, but we’re nowhere near right. What you should probably do is move to a forced ranking, so not just a forced distribution. So you actually say: 'What order are people?' And then you avoid some of the gaming,” he said.
Maude told CSW he had been warned when the system was introduced that it was open to manipulation.
“I remember one of the trade union leaders said to me: ‘This will be gamed, because managers will immediately put anyone who is leaving within a year into the bottom box, [along with] anyone who has been newly promoted.’ People just need to be grown up about this, it’s not a game," he said.
Maude said he believed every organisation in the world should be looking at how to improve the performance of the bottom performing 10%.
"There are some who take a view that you should just get rid of the bottom 10%. I don’t think that’s right. The first step you should take is to coach and support them to improve their performance, and if that doesn’t work then you should be parting company, because they’re probably not doing the right thing either for them or for the country," he said.
While a 2012 CSW survey showed that civil servants generally want a tougher approach to performance management – particularly for identifying and supporting poor performers – the current model has proved controversial. Last year, a blog post about the system by the then civil service head Bob Kerslake prompted hundreds of angry comments from officials who said it was “unfair” and “divisive”.
As CSW pointed out at the time, commenters weren’t against the principle of strengthening performance management, rather the perceived requirement that 10% of staff be designated as poor performers.
Responding to Maude’s comments, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said forced distribution was “already one of the most divisive and widely criticised aspects of the performance management system".
“Bureaucratic, opaque and almost unchallengeable, it ticks the ministerial box of identifying a quantifiable number of poor performers, but ask managers who have to administer it, or staff who want to challenge it, and you may get a different response," he added.
“Any system that measures performance in a way that can result in individuals achieving all objectives set of them and more, but still finding themselves in the bottom 10% as a result of being anonymously ranked against individuals doing very different jobs for different managers, should in itself be consigned to the ‘must improve' category."
Addressing Maude’s suggestion for a new system of individual rankings, Penman said: "The idea that this would be developed to individual rankings would only intensify the bureaucracy, resentment and challenge already inherent in the current system. Quite how this will improve team working and morale is beyond me."
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