Senior officials must give staff "space to fail", says Ian Watmore, government's pick for Civil Service Commissioner

Government's pick for the job of First Civil Service Commissioner calls for a more realistic approach to honest failure as he faces MPs for a scrutiny hearing

By Matt Foster

06 Sep 2016

Civil service leaders must stop "castigating" their staff for honest failure, according to the man lined up to become the next Civil Service Commissioner.

Ian Watmore, former permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, has been named as the government's preferred candidate to lead the watchdog set up to ensure that top civil service appointments are made on merit and after fair and open competition. 

The First Civil Service Commissioner is head of the commission, and personally chairs recruitment panels for permanent secretary posts.

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Watmore on Tuesday faced a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing from MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which must give its approval to the preferred candidate before he takes up post.

The former Cabinet Office perm sec – who has moved in and out of Whitehall during a career that has included a stint as chief executive of the Football Association and two years as permanent secretary in the then-Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – told PACAC that he believed civil service leaders had to "be able to give people the space in which to fail and fail quickly".

"I think it should be a given in the civil service leadership of the day that they are prepared to give the space for people to try things and then back them to the hilt," he told the committee.

Watmore said officials were too often "hung out to dry" when a policy had gone off track, resulting in a reluctance to innovate.

"You have 100 projects and one goes wrong and 99 go right -- and people don't mention the 99, they zoom in on one. And so in the end people become risk-averse, they try to do failure avoidance rather than innovation. "

Watmore recalled his own experience of having to shelve a policy initiative backed by the then-chancellor Gordon Brown, at a time when "if Gordon Brown wanted something done people tried to do it to the bitter end".

"After about a year it was patently not working," he told the committee.

"It was an interesting policy idea that was just not working on the ground. And a group of people actually got together and proposed to the chancellor of the day to withdraw that project, take the short-term brickbats of it, because they were going to be a lot less than the long-term brickbats that would come when the project blew up in its face...

"We killed that project off within a year. It was potentially a good idea, but it was an example of a project that had failed so let's fail quickly. We tried to use that to say, 'Look, if it's okay with a Gordon Brown project, we can do this more broadly.'

"And that was certainly part of the drive for the innovation culture of a few years ago. But my feeling is that the system has retrenched to castigating people for failure and not really celebrating their successes."

Watmore said he wanted to focus on three priorities as First Civil Service Commissioner, including improving the diversity of the senior civil service to ensure a better mix of leaders; ensuring a "diversity of skills" beyond a traditional focus on valuing staff with policy backgrounds; and helping the civil service have the flexibility "to deploy the right people to where the fire is burning most strongly at the current time".

"I think that's true in any era, [but is] given added impetus post-Brexit," he said.

Watmore added: "It may be that there are other issues. But they will be the areas that I am intending to challenge the system of today on. What are you doing to improve your diversity demographic? What are you doing to improve the diversity of skills to get the right, deep skills that we need in the organisation today?

"And how are you ensuring that the system doesn't get bureaucratically bogged down moving the best talent to where the greatest need is?"

MPs on the committee will now decide whether to give their backing to the Cabinet Office's preferred candidate.


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