Slow recruitment is costing the civil service key skills, say outgoing commissioners

Outgoing civil service commissioners highlight concerns that pay restrictions are limiting the attractiveness of some posts, while slow recruitment processes stop departments hiring top candidates

By Richard Johnstone

11 Apr 2017

The civil service will need to adopt new hiring practices to fill skill gaps and respond to issues such as Brexit, including undertaking cross-Whitehall recruitment in some areas, outgoing members of the Civil Service Commission have told CSW.

Speaking in a valedictory interview, Kathryn Bishop, Wanda Goldwag and Angela Sarkis indicted that slow recruitment processes can mean potential employees take jobs in other organisations, while low pay can deter people from applying to join government.

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The civil service commission regulates recruitment to the civil service, and commissioners chair selection panels for external recruitments into the senior civil service, and all recruitments for the top two grades of the service.

A number of recruitment flexibilities have introduced since 2012, including a special process for Brexit-specific posts that allows departments to recruit staff for up to three years.

However Bishop, left, who acted as interim first civil service commission last year until the appointment of Ian Watmore in the top post, told CSW that the civil service must do more examine “the means of entry into the civil service, which is particularly relevant and important as we contemplate the need to for skills for Brexit”.

In particular, departments would need to speed up the process of appointing staff, she said.

Sarkis, pictured right, agreed a big part of the process was looking at the pace at which departments recruit. It can be “incredibly slow”, she said, and some candidates get “really frustrated about it”.

“By the time we’ve gone through our process, they’ve probably been offered another job and they’ve taken it, and it has been a great loss to the civil service,” she added.

The commission was looking at ways to get departments to “step up the pace”, Sarkis said, as Goldwag highlighted the fact that recruitment for posts in the Government Digital Service was often held up departments, not the commission.

“Those roles we went through a process, which would have been as speedy as the commission would have allowed, but actually was always slowed down by processes within GDS or within government,” Goldwag said.

“I, elsewhere in my life, hire IT professionals. The interview normally happens at a point and the person normally knows that afternoon if they’ve got the role, because these skills are incredibly rare. Even with the best will in the world, it was sometimes taking one to two weeks to tell people that they had got the job, and fairly constantly, they had another job by then.

She added that ensuring recruitment processes are not only compliant with the civil service code but fit for purpose will be an important challenge for the civil service. 

This will likely require different processes for different positions, she indicated. “It may well be that a policy role does need quite a lot of reflection and other people discussing it and making some decisions about when someone can be released [from their current post] and so on.  

“But if you’re trying to do very senior digital roles or project management roles or commercial roles, then you need a process that doesn’t take someone going to a minister and waiting four months for a reply.”

Possible models included moving away from individuals responding to department specific job adverts to ones more based on professions and functions in Whitehall. 

“Let’s take commercial skills as an example. Commercial skills are required in many, many different departments. It seems to me quite possible that we could do a recruitment process that is not exactly en masse but has reasonable numbers of people going through the processes," she explains.

"Once it has been agreed that of the 40 or 50 people going through the process, 10 are appointable, it is at that point there would be conversations about where you’ll actually be placed rather than specifically replying to a job that says you’re going to be commercial director of X department.”

Goldwag, left, also told CSW there remains “a bit of dilemma” around civil service pay rates for such roles. “I’d sit through debate about whether we were going to pay someone £130,000 a year or £135,000 a year, and all the credible candidates for the role earn £400,000. 

“That is a problem. And we are solving that problem in certain areas by creating entities that are going to be treated differently – for example, DE&S, the buying-weapons part of MoD has been separated off and has different rules about what they can pay. 

“But you can’t solve the problem by doing that alone, you have to get some skills into the core civil service and I find it a little bit worrying, particularly in some of the IT roles that you’re basically hoping someone has made a lot of money somewhere else and is now willing to halve their salary to come in. I think that is still a bit of a concern.”

Bishop agreed, highlighting that people at times have to be willing to “halve their salary to do a very interesting but undoubtedly demanding roles in government”.

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