Illogical Fast Stream suspension will harm future talent and leadership of civil service

The FDA’s Lauren Crowley says the Fast Stream is vital for increasing diversity and specialist skills in government
Fast Stream Assessment Centre. Photo: Cliff Hide General News/Alamy

By Lauren Crowley

31 May 2022

The decision to suspend the Fast Stream will harm the future talent and leadership of the civil service, which will be worse off for the loss of the skills and dedication of fast streamers in the short, and long term.

Much of the commentary since the decision was first reported has been focussed on the scheme’s apparent flaws, with debate about whether it is ineffective and needs binning or should be kept and reformed. Notwithstanding the major reform project currently underway and due to be implemented in 2024, the Fast Stream suffers from a perception of being a fast track for public school Oxbridge graduates. Yet, whilst perhaps this might once have been the case, it’s no longer grounded in truth.

In 2021, only 10.9% of the Fast Stream intake was from Oxbridge. 23.3% were non-white, 25.5% were disabled, 19.6% were LGB+ and 58.4% were women. The Fast Stream is one of the most diverse and representative areas of the civil service, and is vital to achieving the aim of a more diverse senior civil service.

Crucially, at a time when specialist skills are in high demand, 22.8% of the 2021 intake come from scientific backgrounds. The Fast Stream has specialist streams for digital & data, economics, project delivery and science & engineering. How will the civil service achieve its aim of becoming a ‘science superpower’ if we suspend the recruitment of scientists at the beginning of their careers?

It is also wrongly perceived as a graduate scheme. Many fast streamers I’ve met have already had careers before they enter the scheme, and while the private sector is a popular comparator for civil service recruitment, all of these have been in the public sector. They do not enter the civil service for a high salary - they could earn significantly more in the private sector – but because they care deeply about the improvement, and good delivery, of public services.

Fast streamers are willing to undertake significant responsibilities, and, due to the nature of the scheme, mobile in a way that their colleagues aren’t. When the civil service needs to respond to a crisis, it’ll be fast streamers deployed within a matter of days to deliver a national response to challenges, whether that is a global pandemic, or the invasion of a European country.

This comes at a relatively low cost to departments – particularly compared to external consultants – who recognise the value fast streamers provide. Given the relatively low amounts of money the scheme costs the civil service, we cannot pretend this decision will represent a meaningful saving to the public purse. Yet the ability to bring through some of the brightest and best talent in the UK, at a time when we are facing some of the toughest challenges in generations, is of exceptional value.

The scheme is also there to be shaped whichever way ministers wish – if Jacob Rees-Mogg wants the civil service to be more efficient and to make better use of technology, fast streamers are well placed to provide the skills and understanding needed to deliver such a goal.

The manner in which the decision has been taken also needs closer scrutiny. Departments have been given an instruction by ministers to model workforce reduction and the impact it will have on public services. The Fast Stream works by departments bidding to Cabinet Office annually, dependent on their need, but they had not had a chance to complete this exercise before the decision was taken. Departments have not said that they won’t have a need or space for fast streamers as a result of workforce reduction and, for the arguments already set out, they would surely be unlikely to do so.

The illogical, short-termist way this decision has been taken presents a question as to the real driver for it. Given that it won’t be implemented until autumn 2023, there’s no logical reason for pushing it through without due consideration of the potential impact. It’s reflective of the haphazard way in which the government also made the decision to cut 91,000 jobs. Not based on strategic workforce planning, with consideration of the most efficient way to deliver top public services, but a figure plucked out of the air to appeal to a relentless anti-civil service narrative.

This decision, which covers a very small number of jobs relative to the overall civil service, will have no real impact on easing the cost of living crisis, but will do substantial harm to other government policy goals such as levelling up. Many private sector companies have leadership or fast track schemes. As too does the NHS, local government, teaching, social work and social care. Across society we recognise the importance that developing talent provides to the delivery of services the public values. Is it worth sacrificing all of this for the sake of a few media headlines? I don’t think so.

Lauren Crowley is the FDA’s national officer for the Fast Stream.

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