'Idiocy': unions slam guidance saying 5% of SCS should be marked underperforming

“Guided distribution” guidance labelled “retrograde and unnecessary”

Unions have slammed “retrograde” new guidance that they have said will arbitrarily designate 5% of senior civil servants as underperforming.

Under the Civil Service HR guidance, seen by CSW and set to come into force tomorrow, managers have been told they are expected to rate 5% of their SCS staff in the lowest of four new performance bands in the upcoming year.

Senior civil servants will be ranked in four categories, depending on whether they are deemed to be “exceeding”, “high performing”, “achieving” or to have “partially met” their targets – with the proportion of staff placed in the bottom cohort to be monitored to ensure departments “properly identify those who are not performing at the expected standard”.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, which represents public sector professionals, said the changes “make absolutely no sense and will do only harm”.

“There appears to be no empirical basis for expecting 5% of staff to be underperforming. If you get your recruitment and promotion procedures right, then no or very few staff should be underperforming,” he said.

“I have no problem with issues of poor and under-performance being addressed appropriately. It should surely be a common aspiration, however, that through effective training, development, support and selection, the numbers will be minimal.

"To set an arbitrary target is idiocy and offers a perverse incentive to actively recruit and promote less competent people in order to meet it.”

Lucille Thirlby, assistant general secretary for the senior officials’ union the FDA, said the updated guidance “can only be seen as a retrograde and unnecessary step”.

“It is hard to comprehend why any organisation would arbitrarily decide that 5% of its staff must be underperforming,” she said.

The comments echo objections to an earlier guided distribution system, which was in place between 2012 and 2019, under which managers were strongly encouraged to mark 10% of their staff as performing poorly, with 25% marked as performing well and the remaining 65% as middling.

When the guided distribution system was scrapped in 2019, the FDA welcomed the move as a “very positive but long overdue start” to reform. However, a long-awaited overhaul of performance management that was being considered at the time is still yet to be implemented.

In 2018, the Cabinet Office said it was “exploring options for reforming the SCS performance-management system” alongside options for pay reform.

An initial framework for reform published in 2018 proposed splitting SCS pay rates into three groupings, in an effort to reward high-performing officials and encourage people to stay in their jobs longer.

The 2021 Declaration on Government Reform pledged to introduce capability-based pay for the senior civil service, and the Cabinet Office was expected to start piloting a new approach last September.

Thirlby said it was “very disappointing that all of the Cabinet Office's work to change and improve the performance-management system will now not be realised for yet another year”.

She said the FDA had requested an urgent meeting with the Cabinet Office to discuss the new guidance and delays to reforms.

There has been no suggestion that guided distribution will be introduced for performance management at lower grades. However, John Moloney, assistant general secretary of PCS said the civil service’s biggest trade union would remain “vigilant”.

“The previous regime of guided and forced distribution was disastrous in equality terms, particularly for those from a black, disabled background and was biased against staff in the lower grades,” he said.

“The union will therefore oppose strenuously any attempt to reintroduce this failed system."

Meanwhile, Graham suggested that a system deemed appropriate for officials should also apply to elected officials – who are in line for a £2,200 pay rise this week.

“If ministers genuinely believe that 5% of workers in every organisation are underperforming, then perhaps they could provide a list of their ministerial colleagues and fellow MPs who fall into this category, and presumably should be denied the pay increase they will receive later this week,” he said.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We have made a number of minor changes to reflect the ambitions outlined in the Declaration on Government Reform. 

"Our intention is to build on this with the implementation of a new performance framework that departments can use to ensure performance management processes have sufficient rigour."

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