A "stupid” civil service rule which sees fast streamers change roles every six months is affecting Whitehall’s ability to choose the right people for key jobs, Lord O’Donnell has said.
Speaking at an Institute for Government event on women in Whitehall, the former cabinet secretary urged the new minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock to end rotation in the civil service fast stream to allow those flourishing in their roles to remain in post.
Reflecting on his experience of private office staff, O’Donnell said he believed women were more successful in the private office due to their ability to give "honest feedback" and be “more flexible”. However, the limitation on the time fast streamers can spend in private office means those most suited to the role have to move on.
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“I would have had a positive bias towards women in private office, which is of course being killed by the stupid rule of having six months only in rotation for the fast stream,” he said, adding: “Matt Hancock please change that rule!”
The civil service fast stream was set up to fast track talented staff and graduates into leadership roles. The four year scheme aims to give applicants an understanding of all areas of Whitehall. As a result, the first two years are split into four six-month postings, while the last two years are divided into two 12-month roles.
Sharing his memories of how female private office staff could differ from their male counterparts, O’Donnell said: “I found that women in private office were better at being able to give honest feedback, interestingly. The men would just [say to their civil service colleagues]: ‘Yeah, the minister’s an idiot, he got that completely wrong didn’t he!’ But they wouldn’t say it to the minister.”
He contrasted this with the women in private office, whom he said would subtly let the minister know what they really thought.
According to O’Donnell: “The women in private office would find a way [to speak their minds], saying: ‘So how do you think that went minister?’ The minister would say: ‘Fine, wasn’t it?’ [Then they would say:] ‘Did you not notice that so-and-so felt a bit left out?’”