Whitehall has a people problem

The failure to grasp poor performance and painfully slow recruitment processes are impeding government’s ability to deliver for citizens
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Charlotte Pickles

30 Nov 2023

Whitehall has a people problem, and civil service HR appears to be at the heart of it. Yesterday’s report by the NAO – whose findings will be frustratingly familiar to Whitehall watchers – provides yet another damning indictment of a system lacking that most vital of organisational attributes: talent management.

It may be clichéd, but the success of an organisation is dependent on the quality of its people – and by that measure, Whitehall is in trouble.

High performance starts with building brilliant teams, which, by extension, means ensuring efficient and effective processes are in place for removing poor performers. Yet the NAO found that three of the 16 main departments could not even say how many of their staff were underperforming, and almost two-thirds had no idea what happened to those they classified as such.

During the coalition, when I worked as an adviser to the secretary of state for work and pensions, I asked a senior official what the process was for managing out those failing to make the grade: only those who fail to turn up to work or are persistently late can be managed out, I was told. This, and the NAO’s analysis, would point to a system that would rather avoid difficult conversations.

Readers may be familiar with the phrase the "dance of the lemons". It is used to describe the practice of shuffling bad teachers between schools in the US. It appears it can also be applied in Whitehall.

Back in 2014, Dom Cummings wrote a blog illustrating the point, based on experiences in DfE. He wrote: “Some people who make blunders… are then deemed by the HR system to be ‘priority movers’. This means that a) they are regarded as among the worst performers but also means b) they have to be interviewed for new jobs ahead of people who are better qualified… These people float around in the HR system.”“Float”, “dance”, it’s the same point.

We’re a decade on, and evidence would indicate it hasn’t improved. In our recent publication Civil Unrest, authored by former civil servant Amy Gandon, many of the former and current officials interviewed were damning about this failure to address poor performance. “If you have a poor performer”, explained one, “the easiest way to get rid of them is to encourage them to apply for promotion and help them with their behaviours, which are cookie cutter, and then brush it off on someone else. It needs to change so that we’re not just passing people around the system... if there is poor performance, there should be repercussions.”

"Readers may be familiar with the phrase the 'dance of the lemons'. It is used to describe the practice of shuffling bad teachers between schools in the US. It appears it can also be applied in Whitehall"

Another pointed out that a model in which poor performers “never get sacked” is “demotivating” for hard workers; and one person argued that even poor performers “being bad managers and acting like bullies…just carry on getting promoted and moving on to the next job because of the system”. You can see why Whitehall has a retention problem.

A second issue highlighted by the NAO is the slow and cumbersome approach to hiring. The average time to hire was over three months, with the DWP taking an average of a third of a year to get someone in post. That’s before including security vetting, with can add on several months more.

Almost a decade ago, Catherine Baxendale's review of SCS external hires cited this ludicrous inefficiency as one of the barriers to bringing in outside talent. “It was far too long – I was tempted to go off and do other jobs,” one interviewee said. Baxendale compares this unfavourably with the private sector, which government is actively trying to entice people from – and we have heard repeatedly is vital to improving Whitehall performance.

One of the unintended consequences of sclerotic hiring processes is the development of, as one interviewee for Civil Unrest put it, a “shadow” system for filling roles. “I can see that the proper HR processes aren’t working for people, so there's a shadow system that’s being set up, which is one that I have benefited from. Temporary teams are stood up, and people are TP-ed into them.”

That may be a pragmatic response, even essential when it comes to standing up rapid response teams, but it exacerbates the already sizeable challenge of civil service homogeneity. As another insider put it, “all you’re doing is allowing people of a particular type to get ahead.” 

Both of these issues – the failure to grasp poor performance and the painfully slow recruitment processes – are directly impeding Whitehall’s ability to deliver for citizens. These HR failings are undermining the very purpose of HR: to enable high-performing teams, filled with diverse talent, based on meritocratic principles.

At a recent Reform event, founder and former head of the Government Skills Campus, Pamela Dow, posed a rhetorical question on Whitehall reform: “why was everything so exhaustingly hard and hard won?” Anyone interested in building a more effective government machine should take note of her answer: because “interest in people and human capital and the workforce sits in corporate HR – it shouldn’t, it’s too important for that… if you change one thing, take it out of corporate HR”.

Charlotte Pickles is the director of Reform

Share this page