Talent is the magic ingredient of success – so how can Whitehall get better at managing it?

The civil service must create dedicated roles and a more effective system for spotting and supporting talented people – as well as removing poor performers – if it is to address the complex challenges facing the country
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By Sean Eke

01 May 2024

If only 29% of a company’s employees believed talent and performance management is taken seriously; 7% believed poor performance is managed well; and 62% were aware of disciplinary issues where action should have been taken but was not, we would think there was something very wrong.

Yet these are all results from Reform’s survey with CSW for our new paper Making the Grade. If Whitehall cannot attract and develop exceptional talent, whilst simultaneously managing out those who are not up to standard, it cannot possibly operate at the level needed to address the complex challenges facing this country.

As every high-performing organisation knows, talent is the magic ingredient of success – and that requires serious, dedicated, senior focus on bringing exceptional people in and ensuring they stay. Whitehall currently lacks this, with the government chief people officer responsible for everything from HR policies and training to specialist scheme recruitment and talent.

That needs to change. Government should establish a new chief talent officer (CTO) position with overall responsibility for the recruitment and development of exceptional talent, reporting in to the cabinet secretary. They should keep a database of top talent from within and without the civil service, including international names, and work closely with departments on succession planning for critical roles.

At the same time, the recruitment process for external hires – which one interviewee described as “terrible… for hiring talented people” – needs to be overhauled. The process can take more than 100 calendar days and fails to adequately test an individual’s ability to perform the advertised job due to the over-reliance on success profile "behaviours" – as well as putting them off applying in the first place. Behaviours should be scrapped across the civil service

Civil service pay has been much discussed, and there is increasing evidence that salary levels are leading to recruitment problems, particularly at the more senior end. If Whitehall is to be home to the best and brightest, it is going to need to get serious about pay. One way to do this is to offer higher pay for a lower pension contribution. The CTO should be empowered to negotiate this with key recruits without the multiple sign offs currently required for pay exceptions.

Building on the brand success of the Fast Stream, a Mid-Career Fast Stream (MCFS) should be created. The MCFS should be highly competitive, with no more than 50 recruits, overseen by the CTO. It should involve a curated onboarding process and ongoing development, with a formal assessment at two years.

For the many talented individuals already working within Whitehall a more bespoke and proactive approach is needed. Just 2% of respondents to the Reform/CSW survey strongly agreed with the statement “talented people rise to the top of the civil service”. We heard from people who had been rated as "exceeding" and offered no guidance as to how to progress and further develop. This is a major problem: talented individuals are one of Whitehall’s biggest assets and they need to be deployed effectively.

Existing talent schemes – such as the Future Leaders Scheme and the Senior Leaders Scheme – are insufficient. They rely on individuals to apply to them and are rarely linked to performance-appraisal processes. Oddly, participation has little direct bearing upon career prospects.

Drawing upon the Leadership College for Government’s original vision, existing schemes should be phased out and replaced by a new Leadership Development Scheme (LDS) managed by the CTO. Participation should be tied to the performance appraisal processes, to ensure that the scheme is focused on exceptional talent, and it should be ongoing rather than time limited.

Complementing the LDS should be a Specialist Development Scheme (SDS) for those individuals who want to develop within their field of expertise. Such individuals have limited opportunities within Whitehall, with promotion typically dependent on leaving their specialist area or taking on more management responsibilities. This is particularly a problem within the policy profession. In contrast, similar schemes to the SDS exist in the private sector. For example, Microsoft have separate career paths for engineers who want to develop their skills as “individual contributors” but not manage people. Participants on the SDS should be eligible for in-post pay progression, allowing them to remain focused on deepening their specialism.

Recruiting and developing exceptional talent are crucial steps. However, Whitehall also needs to grasp the nettle of poor performance which, in the words of one interviewee, is “endemic”.

An issue frequently raised by interviewees was the lack of support available to line managers when addressing poor performance. This was corroborated by the Reform/CSW survey, with less than 40% of line-manager respondents agreeing that they feel supported by their leadership team to manage poor performance and disciplinary matters. If line managers lack support, they are less likely to tackle poor performance. To address this, each department should establish a dedicated performance unit within their HR function to support line managers in a 'hands-on" way with addressing performance issues.

Overpromotion was also identified as a significant problem, creating poor performers. The use of "promotion boards" was described by interviewees as an effective way of assessing suitability for promotion, without applicants having to specify a particular role.

Promotion boards should be rolled out across Whitehall for candidates looking to make Grade 6 and above. These would reduce the risk of overpromotion, since suitability could be assessed without the pressure of having to imminently fill a vacancy, as well as increasing the speed with which such vacancies can be filled.

To help end the merry-go-round in which poor performers simply move from role to role, references should be made mandatory and an individual’s current performance rating taken into account.

Whitehall should be characterised by a culture of excellence, prioritising high performance above everything else and acting swiftly to tackle poor performance. It should be seen as one of the most attractive places to work – somewhere where talented individuals rise to the top and there is a strong sense of exciting career opportunities.

Improving talent and performance management in Whitehall is not a technical nice to have, it is absolutely fundamental to the ability of government to deliver for the public.

 Sean Eke is a researcher at Reform


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