The civil service's performance management system is having a "toxic" effect on the workforce, the new deputy general secretary of Prospect union has claimed, as he urged ministers to carry out a "cool appraisal" of the scheme.
Under the current "guided distribution" model – introduced in 2013 in a bid to help managers better deal with poor performance – departments and agencies are encouraged to rank 65% of their staff as middling, 25% as performing well, and 10% as poor performers.
But unions have questioned the model, claiming that the requirement to identify poor performers has pressured some managers into "gaming" the system by filling the bottom 10% with new staff or those about to leave.
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In an interview with Civil Service World, Garry Graham – who has now formally taken over responsibility for civil service issues in the specialist union following the retirement of Leslie Manasseh in October – named performance management as one of the key issues he planned to focus on.
"I’m a fan of good performance management," he said. "When somebody does a good job I think they should be told. Where somebody needs to improve they should be given the support and the assistance to do that.
"But I think the guided distribution that we have is a toxic mix for team working. When I used to negotiate performance management [with private sector employers], line one, page one of the management consultancy textbook was that this system must have the confidence of staff and those who operate it. And it feels very much that that’s been turned on its head."
The Prospect deputy general secretary expressed concern that the issue had become "totemic in the eyes of ministers", and called instead for a "cool appraisal of what’s actually happening in practice and how we can do things differently".
He added: "I find it odd that if you want to motivate a highly-performing team that you should have a self-fulfilling prophecy that a certain percentage are going to be in the bottom. If you want to support managers to make difficult decisions then that’s one thing. Forcing them to make decisions which are potentially unfair is not good for organisations or for individuals."
While the performance management category percentages used by the civil service are described as guidelines and not forced targets, a CSW survey of more than 4,000 managers carried out last year found that over two-thirds felt pressured to hit those numbers.
Elsewhere in his interview, Graham said he worried about a "hollowing out" of specialist skills in the civil service amid ongoing public sector pay restraint, and warned of a "crisis of confidence" among public leaders.
"When I go to Scotland and Wales and the devolved assemblies, while the financial constraints are very similar, the types of dialogue that they have with trade unions, and the types of dialogue they have about public services is very, very different," he said.
"In many ways, those working for Whitehall departments at the moment feel underpaid compared to what’s happening in the private sector. I think they feel undervalued — who is out there championing what they do and the value that they add for UK citizens? If they see light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, it’s an oncoming train and it’s called the Spending Review."
The Treasury, which will set out the conclusions of the government-wide Spending Review on November 25, has said the ongoing 1% cap on public sector payrises – due to remain in place until 2019/20 is necessary to protect jobs and reduce public spending.
Graham previously led Prospect's work in the energy sector, dealing with organisations including the National Grid and EDF. He told CSW that his union wanted to "engage positively" with the government, and said he hoped to "change the way that we communicate about the public sector" to try and strike a more positive note.
"Often it’s regarded as a homogenous mass," he said. "But if you look at what our members do in the Research Councils, in transport, in the Health and Safety Executive, in the Ministry of Defence, in cultural areas, they actually help to defend, support, and enhance what we feel is most dear about our way of life. So we need to find a way of communicating that so that the public and opinion formers see the valuable work that our members do and recognise that it’s important."
Update 6/11: A paragraph in an earlier draft of this story referred to Graham as Prospect general secretary. He is, of course, deputy general secretary. Apologies for the error