The Civil Service Workforce plan: everything you need to know

Amid all the drama of last week’s arrival of a new government, it was easy to miss the launch of the Civil Service Workforce Plan. But, as Suzannah Brecknell explains, it’s a document that could have major implications for the future of the organisation as it grapples with the big challenges ahead

By Suzannah Brecknell

18 Jul 2016

Getting the right people, with the right skills, and keeping them in the right jobs, has been a long-standing challenge for the civil service. It’s one that civil service leaders hope they can address through a new workforce plan, launched last week by  the then-cabinet office minister Matt Hancock. According to cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, Hancock’s successor Ben Gummer has already signed up to its aims, promising the pair will “work closely together to implement both the vision and the plan”.

Julian McCrae, deputy director of the Institute for Government, broadly welcomed the plan, saying the civil service had long-standing weaknesses in key areas such as commercial and finance skills. “The new workforce plan is an attempt to tackle these issues head on,” he said. “Whitehall will need to rapidly put these plans into action, especially as it expands its professional skills and expertise to cope with Brexit.”

Prospect’s deputy general secretary Gary Graham was less welcoming, however, noting the unusual timing of the launch — on David Cameron’s last full day as prime minister. “The civil service is at its smallest now than since 1939, when the challenges facing the UK in the Brexit are huge. Capacity and capability building are crucial. We would have expected today’s announcement to be put on hold, allowing a new prime minister to at least take stock in relation to the civil service they are inheriting.”

Civil service workforce plan: unions warn of “two-tier” pay risk
Matt Hancock: No more “gifted amateurs” – civil servants must specialise
Tackle surge in consultancy spend with better workforce planning, PAC tells departments

Graham said measures in the plan would seem like “fairly thin gruel” to civil servants, 25% of whom are thinking of leaving in the next year or two, according to the latest Whitehall-wide People Survey. The annual staff survey also showed that three quarters of staff believed they could be better paid elsewhere — and those figures should be cause for concern to “any HR director worth their salt”.

"Whitehall will need to rapidly put these plans into action, especially as it expands its professional skills and expertise to cope with Brexit" - Institute for Government deputy director Julian McCrae

FDA general secretary Dave Penman also cautiously welcomed the plan, though he criticised the lack of detail in some areas, particularly when it came to resourcing and implementation. “As ever with these things, it comes down to: ‘what’s the colour of the money? How will it be translated into real points? The civil service is never short of good ideas, it’s always the implementation that lets them down, and that often comes down to resourcing.”

So what’s in it? The plan sets out five areas which need “further attention”, and the actions which the civil service will take under in each of these areas. 

As the plan itself notes, there is no great change of direction from previous workforce and reform plans. “A set of actions and interventions for each build upon what is already under way across the civil service,” says the plan, though it notes there are some “fresh commitments on how we will shape our workforce.” Below we outline the main actions set out in each of the plan’s five areas.

Attracting and retaining talented people

The announcement which has attracted most attention is the commitment to make all recruitment into the civil service external-by-default by the end of this parliament. Recruitment into the senior civil service is already external-by-default, something which was first pledged in the Civil Service Reform Plan, which said: “To help close the key capability gaps, by April 2015 we will move to the presumption that Senior Civil Service appointments below permanent secretary level are open to external candidates as well as civil servants.”

Alongside this, recruitment processes will be reviewed and reformed. Some changes will happen quickly — a new centre of expertise for senior recruitment, the removal of paper-based processes and the introduction of “robust, science-based recruitment, short-listing and selection processes” will all be in place by the end of this year, the plan promises.

In the medium-term, there will be pilots of new approaches to recruitment, moving away from the competency-based processes which are now in place.

The plan also sets out an ambition to see more secondments – an updated secondment and interchange strategy will be implemented by March 2017. The FDA’s chief Penman, however, warned that making those secondments worthwhile would mean organisations and individuals getting central support — and resources.

“We constantly have members who are on secondment who are ignored,” he says, adding that many people “go out and gain new skills and on return are thrown into a pool of people looking for a job”.

“Managing secondments and talent across departments should be something the civil service is good at, but it doesn’t put enough resource into it,” he says, suggesting that central resource and strong focus on managing as well as generating secondments will be needed.

The plan does set out goals to make it easier for staff moving in and out of the civil service: support for new joiners and efforts to retain links with leavers will both be improved by October 2016.

“Managing secondments and talent across departments should be something the civil service is good at, but it doesn’t put enough resource into it" - FDA union general secretary Dave Penman

This section also contains the action with a shortest deadline: by September this year, government will “streamline the exits process and make changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme”.

Government’s proposed changes to the CSCS were set out earlier this year, amid disquiet from the unions. {}

Graham, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, said of this goal: “Many civil servants will see that the most aggressive date in relation to the proposed reforms relates to seeking to make detrimental changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme — which was negotiated by Prospect and other unions in 2010. They will see this as speaking volumes about the government’s view of the staff who have so loyally served it.”

Breadth of experience, depth of expertise

Having attracted talented individuals to the civil service, this section states: “We need our talented people to build breadth of experience and depth of expertise.” To do this there should be clear career paths for each of the 26 professions and ten common corporate fucntions in the civil service.

Hancock’s speech emphasised the importance of specialisation for civil servants, with the then-Cabinet Office minister telling his audience: “I’d say to everyone wanting to build a career in the civil service: specialise; focus on your strengths; become the expert, become the best in the world at what you do. Don’t flit around. And under the new plans for a professionalised civil service you will be rewarded.” 

The plan itself describes frameworks for each of the 26 professions that “help to map out key skills and experiences required at each level, and how we provide structured opportunities to develop these”. There is, however, no action listed on professional frameworks, only a hint at what they might look like when the plan praises the project delivery and policy professions which “have co-designed externally accredited qualifications in partnership with academic

While the professions have no concrete action, for the ten core functions we can expect a Single Functional Plan by late 2016, setting out “how they will develop clear career paths, professional standards and frameworks, and enhanced professional capability across the civil service”.

Reform of recruitment and promotion is again mentioned in this section, this time specifically stating that the new processes will move away from the competency framework, introduced in 2013, to develop systems “that value experience and expertise alongside potential”.

Goals to be achieved this year include developing national apprenticeships standards for professions, and expanding the operational delivery profession’s Surge and Response team, which is sent into help departments at times of peak demand or crisis, and so should provide opportunities gain some breadth of experience. 

World class leaders

The importance of good leadership is a recurring theme in civil service reform plans, and this section reiterates work that is already underway. The Leadership Academy, which was first announced late last year, will take its first cohort by March 2017 and “work with leading educational institutions and thought leaders to promote an ethos of excellence, where leaders learn from each other”

The civil service leadership statement — which describing good leaders as inspiring, confident, and empowering — will be embedded into recruitment and performance management processes, the plan says. More broadly, a revamp of the learning and development offered to all civil servants will be completed by the end of this year.

The FDA strongly welcomes this focus on leadership — though its general secretary Dave Penman says it will be important to build a leadership focus into the work on corporate functions. Officials must consider how to build broader management and leadership capability within those functional specialisms, he notes, so that when they get “to the most senior roles they understand what’s required”.

Most inclusive employer in the UK

Tackling inequality is not just an ethical imperative, the plan states, but a strategic aim – “evidence shows that organisations with a diverse range of backgrounds and experience run more effectively”.

As Penman notes, much of the detail here focuses on socio-economic diversity, with little mention of challenges around disabled and BAME representation in the civil service.

The plan reiterates a target, set out by civil service disability champion Phlip Rutnam, to halve the gap in enagement scores between disabled and non-disabled staff by 2020. There will also be reforms to the Fast Stream, as outlined in the Talent Action Plan earlier this year.

Most of the deadlines in this workforce plan are within the next year — a “critical review” of the way the civil service values talent will be carried out by the Autumn, to ensure that talent schemes are assessing “potential and the skills required, rather than ‘polish’”.

Name- and school-blind recruitment, designed to stop good candidates being ruled out because of bias, is already in place at 16 of the 17 main departments, and the lagging department is expected to fall into line by September. A toolkit for tackling discrimination, bullying and harassment will be developed over the summer, the plan says, while a strategy on the same topic will follow by 2017.

On social mobility, a first step will be to “develop and publish a common national set of measures for employers to use for understanding the socio-economic background” of staff and job applicants”. This is due to be in place by the autumn, and over the rest of the parliament there will be what’s being called a “fundamental review of the employee experience”, aiming to tie up “social mobility and inclusion principles into every aspect of the way the civil service works”.

Flexible reward structures

This is the shortest section in the plan, but one which may have the greatest interest for civil servants. It also throws up a big balancing act for officials tasked with implementing its aims. It promises a review of pay and rewards to create a system which enables the civil service to attract scarce skills and retain talented staff, while also maintaining “fiscal constraint” and value for money. 

Several reviews will report before the end of this financial year. First, a review of the SCS pay framework, due by November. This will be carried out “in line with Senior Salary Review body recommendations,” the plan says. The SSRB’s latest report, published in December last year, called for a rise in the minimum pay for each band within the SCS and highlighted a series of discrepancies. It noted that wide pay bands and little or no pay progression meant some managers earnt less than their junior staff, and described a wide gap between the pay offered to internal and external recruits to the SCS.

There will also be further reviews on pay and reward structures for specialist staff including data, digital and technology by April 2017. These will set up flexible reward systems for scarce skills, the plan says, citing the creation of the new Government Commercial Organisation (detailed by CSW last month) as the start of this process.

Unions have raised concerns about the focus on reviewing pay for specialist staff, however, with the FDA’s Penman warning that looking only at pay for a minority of the service could risk widening the gap between internal and external recruits.

In the longer term, however, the plan says it will develop a new  reward framework for all civil servants, with principles agreed by March 2017 and embedded by May 2020.

Share this page