Performance management may be discriminating against BME, disabled and part-time civil servants, warns Prospect

Union analysis of Cabinet Office data on more than 280,000 officials highlights "statistically significant" differences in how different groups are treated

By Matt Foster

14 Apr 2016

Trade union Prospect has urged an overhaul of the "arbitrary and potentially discriminatory" civil service performance management system, after new analysis suggested that BME staff, those with disabilities, and officials working part time are more likely to receive the lowest rankings.

The current model of civil service performance management was introduced in 2013 in a bid to help managers better deal with poor performance. Under a "guided distribution" model, leaders at 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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New analysis of Cabinet Office figures provided to specialist union Prospect highlights the effect of the system on particular groups of staff, with the union warning that the outcomes could be discriminatory. 

Prospect is particularly concerned that BME staff are more likely to get a "must improve" Box 3 rating than their white colleagues, with 9.8% of BME staff being ranked this way compared to 6.9% of white staff.

BME officials are also five points less likely to be given an "exceeded" Box 1 ranking than their white colleagues, the data show. The union says BME officials appeared to have "a much lower performance profile than white staff, with we believe statistically significant differences both across the civil service and within departments".

Meanwhile, staff with a declared disability also appear to be more likely to be told to improve. More than one in ten staff with a disability (12.9%) were given a "must improve" Box 3 ranking, according to the data, compared to 7.7% for staff with no disability. Only 14.8% of disabled staff were placed in the "exceeded category", while 22.2% of staff without a disability made the top grade.

(Red = must improve; Blue = achieved; Green = Exceeded. Click image for view full-size version)

Prospect is also concerned about the impact of the system on staff aged over 50 and those working part time. The union's analysis shows that part timers were given a top Box 1 marking in only 14.1% of cases, compared to 21.4% for their full-time colleagues. 

Meanwhile, staff aged over 50 were seven points less likely to be given the top ranking, and three points more likely to receive a Box 3 than staff aged under 50. 

However, the analysis shows that there appears to be little difference in the respective rankings given to men and women – with women faring slightly better than men in Box 1 markings (20.4% compared to 18%), while LGBT staff and heterosexual staff also appear to have broadly similar rankings.

The Prospect analysis – shared in full with CSW – is based on data provided to the union by the government in early February. The data covers more than 280,000 officials across 17 government departments.

"Managers should be supported"

Prospect's deputy general secretary Garry Graham told CSW that while the union "supports good quality performance management systems", the figures showed a system "riddled with inconsistency" which was leaving civil service managers under pressure "to meet quotas rather than have a genuine and open discussion about performance".

He added: "Managers should be supported when they have to make difficult decisions – what we are seeing, however, are situations where managers feel forced to make decisions which are arbitrary and potentially discriminatory.

"Over the past number of weeks there has been much talk about ‘Talent Action Plans’ and the civil service being an engine for diversity and social mobility. Many will look at the most recent performance management outcomes and conclude that the maths does not add up."

The government's latest version of its diversity Talent Action Plan (TAP) says departments will soon begin publishing their performance management data "cut by protected characteristics" in a bid to allow greater scrutiny of the impact of the system on particular groups, but it says that work to pull that data together remains ongoing.

The TAP states: "Departmental data has been collected centrally and will be gathered every six months to monitor progress. Links to departmental annual diversity reports will be made available in one place on the website for the first time by Summer 2016.

"There will be a data summary for each report to make the figures more transparent and easier to understand. Departments will also publish their performance management data, cut by protected characteristics."

The Cabinet Office has not responded to CSW's requests for comment on the analysis.

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