Government guidance has confirmed the end of the controversial "guided distribution" performance management system for senior civil servants introduced by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
The latest performance management information for the SCS, published by the Cabinet Office earlier this month, said departments will be required to assess SCS members “against their objectives, assigning individuals to one of the three performance groups: top, achieving, and low”. However, it confirmed that “as of 2018/19, forced distribution has been removed for the SCS”.
Under the forced distribution system, which was introduced in 2012 as part of Maude’s reforms to the civil service, managers were encouraged to rank 25% of staff as performing well and exceeding expectations, 65% as having met them, and 10% as performing poorly and told they must improve.
The system has long been criticised by unions, and it has mostly been replaced for civil servants at lower grades under delegated pay rules that are set by individual departments.
However, the move to end the system for the SCS was only first revealed to unions as part of the evidence to the Senior Salaries Review Body’s annual pay review for top officials.
A government submission in January stated proposed ending forced distribution and expanding or removing the 25% cap on the percentage of SCS eligible to receive an end-of-year bonus.
Updated guidance was then published stating there was “no forced distribution”, which had previously required departments to place their SCS cohort in these quotas. However, it added that “as with any normal large organisation, we would expect there to be a bell curve of performance differentiation, with the largest proportion of SCS in each department falling in the middle box (‘achieving’) and the small proportion in the bottom box (‘low’).”
Performance management cycles
Under the revisions, managers have been told to develop performance management cycles, starting with performance planning to give employees objectives for the year, performance review throughout the year to ensure they remain relevant, culminating in formal performance assessment every six months. The objectives for each member of the SCS should mirror aims in the relevant Single Departmental Plans.
Formal performance assessment should include both what staff have accomplished, and how they have done so, including the demonstration of civil service values.
“Additional consideration should also be given to the degree of difficulty or ease of meeting the objectives in light of actual events,” according to the guidance.
The guidance states that staff assigned to the “top” performance group should be considered for talent programmes to retain and develop them, while those assessed as “low” performers should have performance development plans drawn up, if appropriate, to help bring them up to at least the “achieving” standard.
Departments are then required to share a breakdown of the number and percentage of their top and low performers with the Cabinet Office, and any staff in formal poor performance measures and consecutive year poor performance.
The guidance also revealed that success profiles, part of a revised civil servant recruitment system, are being used for appraisals.
Success profiles replace the civil service competency framework and are designed to be a more flexible way to assess candidates using a variety of selection methods. Profiles for jobs can be made up of five elements, including ability, experience and "strengths" – activities that candidates do regularly and which motivate them.
In an interview with CSW last September, government chief people officer Rupert McNeil hinted that the structure of success profiles – 36 strengths mapped to nine key behaviours – may eventually change how people are assessed once they are in roles too.
The latest government updates reveal further details of this shift. The submission to the SSRB highlights that success profiles could be integrated, where appropriate, into the SCS pay approach, “in particular through changes to performance management for the SCS and the introduction of any future capability-based pay progression”.
The guidance confirms: “From early 2019, departments will use the Civil Service Behaviours element of Success Profiles in order to understand ‘how’ we want people in the Civil Service to work. This replaces the Civil Service Competency Framework which was in use from April 2013 until early 2019.
“Civil service behaviours have been designed to complement professional competency frameworks that have been developed by the civil service professions/functions. If you work as part of a profession with a separate framework, the CS behaviours should be used alongside it.”
‘More staff eligible for bonuses’
Responding to the guidance, the FDA trade union, which represents senior civil servants, said the change would unlock bonus pay for more officials.
Splitting senior civil servants into three categories led to stagnation, because individuals rarely regressed to a lower achievement category, meaning large differences in renumeration based on small performance differences, assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby said.
She said one member had told the union: "The differential between those who are appraised as being top 25% performers and those immediately below is far too great, given that there are many who are on the cusp of being in the top 25% and by not being assessed as such miss out on a considerable bonus. My line manager informed me that during moderation I was "in and out" of the top box but ended up out, marginally."
Thirlby said the revised guidance was “a very positive but long overdue start” to reform.
"The FDA remains convinced that the whole SCS performance management system requires a new framework," she said. "The government has committed to do this, but the impetus for change remains high, and the FDA will continue to push for that change until it is realised.”
"We are aware of several civil service employers who would be willing and able to introduce or pilot a new approach immediately, and we believe they should not be forced to retain a system that fails on every conceivable success criterion. It isn't right that more than a third of top performers do not see a clear link between their performance and their pay.”
Also responding to the changes, Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary said: "It is fundamental to the operation of any performance management system that it must have the confidence of the staff. However the system of quotas and guided distribution was widely loathed and seen as toxic by most informed professionals.
“It was a system imported from the US, where it was already out of fashion and discredited, and turbo charged by Frances Maude's prejudices about the civil service.
“This move away from an ideologically-driven performance management system is both welcome and long overdue.”