Saturday, 25 August 2012

A new PUS, same old in-tray. Thoughts on the appointment of Jon Thompson.


The MOD used the start of a Bank Holiday weekend to quietly slip out the news that the competition to replace Ursula Brennan had been concluded. The new PUS will be the current finance director, Jon Thompson.

This was always going to be a fascinating competition – there is arguably a dearth  of talent at the senior 3* gusting 4* level right now. The author has spoken to a lot of friends and acquaintances and their opinion of the current home-grown MOD talent pool is that there are some superb people in the system, many of whom have the potential to be excellent PUS material within the next couple of years. Right now though, it feels as if the department is still coming to the end of its ‘lean years’, marked by the appointment of Ursula Brennan, due to the lack of anyone else allegedly wanting to take on the job.

Humphrey has no idea who else was in the running for the post. There is some suggestion from a commentator here that Bernard Grey put his name forward, but beyond that, no names have been publicly suggested. The job was openly advertised though – the joy of the civil service recruitment system means that anyone, of any grade, can apply for a post once it reaches a certain point in the recruitment system. Humphrey saw, and was tempted, to put in an application for the PUS role, if only to mirror the example of the Danish CDS of a junior individual suddenly promoted over many more senior officers. In reality, it would have been amusing to see the feedback on the application, and see why exactly a stunningly average, gusting mediocre career to date doesn’t qualify him to follow in the footsteps of previous PUS.

What though can be deduced from this appointment? Several thoughts spring to mind:

 Finance is everything
Jon Thompson is coming to the role from a lifelong finance background. A quick glance at his biography (HERE) shows an individual who has spent his life working in the detailed financial sector. He has not, by any means, followed the traditional policy route seen of so many civil servants in the past.

His appointment shows that he will be someone who knows where the bodies are buried, and who cannot be baffled on financial matters. Having spent the best part of three years trying to bring order to a massively overheated, overcommitted and over ambitious budget, he knows full well the scale of the problem overcome, and likely scale of future challenges. He will be ideally placed to go  into negotiations with HM Treasury ahead of the next spending review and Strategic Defence & Security Review in 2015. He’s not an idealist policy wonk, he’s a financier, and that will make a major difference to his credibility on Whitehall.

Policy Wonking is so yesterday
The traditional career path for MOD civil servants appears to be gone forever. The days when a young thruster, probably educated at Oxford, joined the civil service, was posted to MOD and remained there forever until he either retired, got caught in compromising photos with a Communist plant, or was appointed PUS have gone.

The MOD seems to no longer generate first rate internal civil servants capable of leading a department. If one looks at recent history, many of the most senior MOD officials have been brought in from the outside, parachuted in at senior levels to take charge. This seems a damning indictment of a training structure which used to do so well at generating good officials.

Within Whitehall there used to be a clear pecking order in terms of the quality of civil servants. MOD ones were highly regarded, and often sought after by other departments. Today though, the author is struggling to think of a single ex MOD civil servant who occupies a PUS level role in Government. The sad reality is that the MOD talent generation system has seemingly failed. The high quality civil servants at junior levels, who are so keenly sought after by other departments, do not appear to be rising to the challenge at the top of the game.

If the MOD still had an HR personnel management system (and it doesn’t, for it scrapped HR management of its personnel nearly 10 years ago), then there should be a serious review into why the department is failing to produce PUS grade civil servants. Many good staff are leaving, but they aren’t leaving to take on other departments, they are just leaving the civil service.

The problem is the complete lack of real talent management, beyond a token development scheme which abandons successful staff at the Grade 7 level.  There seems to be no real sense that MOD has an interest in taking staff forward, from the day they arrive in Main Building as a fresh faced cherub, to the day they retire. The system seems to be more about being a job than a career now, and staff are reacting appropriately.

The MOD decided to abandon real staff development as a savings measure, and it is now reaping what it has sown. Arguably at all levels of management there is no real career development measures, instead relying on civil servants to work out for themselves what they want to be when they grow up. A fine idea in theory, but one which has utterly failed in practise. There is no manpower management, no staff development, no rotation of posts to ensure no area is reliant on a single point of failure. If you believe rumours circulating in Whitehall bars, then as a result of redundancies, whole business areas are losing their talent pool, and no one knows how to do the job, because people are not post rotated anymore.

The appointment of someone who is not a lifelong MOD civil servant to be PUS merely highlights the growing challenge of talent management in the system. There are good people out there – as noted above, there are some immensely capable senior civil servants in the MOD, but they have yet to reach the point where they can compete for these posts. The loss of the 2nd PUS post this year means that there is a reduced career structure for the best MOD civil servants, and less motivation to stay in the system.

Does it matter?
The flip side of the question though is whether all of this really matters? After all, a quick review of industry shows that many companies senior management is drawn from personnel who move around a great deal, and are emphatically not ‘lifers’. There seems to be relatively little precedence for in house personnel spending 40 years in the same FTSE 100 company, eventually ending up as the CEO (yes it can happen, but not so much anymore). In this time when MOD seeks to emulate the wider world of business, does it really matter where the senior staff are sourced from?

The role of the civil service is to provide impartial advice to the Government of the day. It is the PUS who delivers this advice, based in part on a lifetime of understanding the system they work in. But, in reality the advice is sourced from more junior civil servants who will formulate policy, and put it to PUS as guidance. Arguably providing the person who is providing this advice understands the system, and understands the briefing material, then it doesn’t matter. What matters is putting high quality junior civil servants into the right posts to ensure they can deliver the briefs at the right time.  

The challenge is to provide these more junior civil servants with a career path and get them the posts where they can advise PUS in the first place though. As an example Humphrey is relatively junior, non Oxbridge, and non Faststream, and sees no future in the civil service. As someone who is repeatedly told he has huge potential, is keen & ambitious, it is heart-breaking to see no way to progress up the system. Why stay working for a system that has no interest in developing you, no interest in promoting you, and which seemingly has no coherent succession planning in place? After 10 years in the system, the author has reluctantly realised that he has no future in it, and is now actively looking for work outside the system – simply to try and find a career which has prospects. Although there is no leaving date in mind, it feels an enormous relief to accept that there is the chance of a fresh start, and for working somewhere which might actually give a damn about its staff and their development.

That someone who is so keen should be so keen to leave should be sending up a worrying signal to the HR system. The civil service suffers from an aging workforce, and yet increasingly the younger part of the demographic is seeking to leave. Humphrey is one of the last of his peer group to make the decision to jump – of those he joined with, hardly any are left, and all are looking for work elsewhere. The problem for the future is that those who could be outstanding mid level, and senior senior civil servants are instead now looking elsewhere. The situation is self-perpetuating – by reducing opportunity at the top, and not promoting a proper career structure from within, the best staff leave. With no career opportunities, those who could be PUS, and who used to be 'grown internally' to compete for these positions, have gone forever. How many people who could be excellent 1 or 2* officers in 10-20 years time have gone, abandoned by a system which never even knew about the quality of the talent that they possessed?

There is no simple answer, but the message for the new PUS is clear. He inherits a department that is busy, but with low morale, with civil servants who feel they have been the fall guys for the political ambition & failings of the last decade, and a military system keen to claim glory, but shirk responsibility for mistakes. He has to rebuild morale, show that despite suffering more manpower cuts than all three armed services combined that there is a career future for good civil servants, and that people value the contribution that they make to the defence of the realm. It is an immensely challenging task, and he may well struggle, but Humphrey wishes him all the best on his journey, and fervently hopes that under new leadership his own faith and belief in something he once loved will be once again rekindled.

17 comments:

  1. Personally I'm a great fan of Jon Thompson. To start with, he's the only Board member who actually answers his own 'Ask the Board' questions.... He's certainly the best of the current 3-stars, whatever his background, and he knows enough by now about how the place works. But I agree it's troubling how few senior staff we have who seem up to the job.

    I'd disagree that finance is everything (although as a long-standing non-finance policy and secretariat staffer I have to declare both a prejudice and an interest here). It's certainly more than it used to be. But it's intersting that we have just felt it necessary to try and revitalise the pol/sec community and skill set. I'll be very interested to see if Jon T as PUS is as strong in supporting that as he has been as Finance Director in professionalising the finance community. The real answer is that MOD is such a large and diverse organisation that we continue to need a good balance of skills. Which is why the complete failure of our corporate HR is so damning.

    On morale and good staff, I'd agree there is a problem, although pending the results of the next Your Say survey I'm inclined to be a bit more 'glass half-full' than your analysis. All the evidence I see suggests our people continue to believe strongly in what we do. My concern is less over the intrinsic quality of the people we keep than how we give them the training and experience they need to do their jobs, whatever they do and at whatever level they are. Our corporate memory and identity is virtually dead, and increasngly dependent on a few key individuals scattered across the system. We need to find a way to start rebuilding this. A bit of public fighting from the top (i.e. PUS) for proper recgnition that the defence civil service is due a share of the credit for what defence has continued to deliver over the last decade despite all the brickbats and reductions would help. But I am conscious I may be projecting my own views here. I agonised last year, as a middle manager stuck firmly in the career doldrums, over whether or not to go, and in the end decided to stay, despite all the points you rightly highlight, at core because I believe in what we are trying to do, and defence is where I want to work. But I will admit that at times I feel that commitment is thoroughly exploited by my employer.

    All of which, I think, comes down to agreeing with your basic premises, but not necessarily with all the conclusions you draw from them. Time will tell. In the meantime, like you I wish Jon Thompson well. And of the 3/4 stars at the moment, I think he's got the least bad chance of setting better foundations for the future.

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    1. Thank you for an excellent and very reasoned comment. I agree that bringing training forward is key - in fact I was lamenting this point with an old friend over the weekend, the way that DB Learning and its successors has gone from being something easily accesible and well worth doing to something which seems to have died completely.
      I think people do believe, and I'd count myself as one of them. Despite all that happens, we still cling on to the hope that we can make it right. What worries me is that many people who were self described 'lifers' now see themselves as looking for an escape route.
      If the department can turn around and show that it has a career plan for its staff, and that talent, skills and dedication can be rewarded, then maybe people like myself would be tempted to stay. I'd love to stay, I love defence, I am so proud of what we do, and I will do my utmost to stand up for it. But I feel that things have gone beyond a tipping point, with no sign that senior leadership genuinely get just how bleak it is at the face.

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    2. I hope you're wrong about the tipping point. Personally I think we're still in the fight and it could yet go either way - which is why what Jon Thompson does over the next 6-12 months will be so crucial.

      On the basis of what I know personally about the current 2/3 star community, assuming that's who you mean by senior leadership - and I've run across a fairish proportion of them - some do understand where we are. But it doesn't seem to be universal, and I can't see any obvious correlation between where they sit and whether they get this. It doesn't seem to be a Head Office/TLB dichotomy. Ironically, where I do see a correlation is that a larger proportion of those with a background outside defence seem to find it easier to take on board the scale of our problems and that they won't be solved by business as usual. Which does, I think, support your argument that we aren't adequately developing our own people.

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  2. I think the MOD continues to run two general development schemes, MIDiOT and FASTdream. These are "managed" by what is left of the HR Directorate - though as the CS shrinks, perhaps they should have a single cross government development scheme?

    That corporate memory, knowledge and morale are dead should come as no surprise. The Department used to test people on their knowledge of Defence as well as what they have achieved, which was supported by staff reports (which encouraged people to take an interest in the jigsaw.).

    For the last 15 years, however, people have been preluded from conducting interviews which test individual interest in and knowledge of Defence and instead rely upon general "competence" (perhaps they meant confidence?) based questions which could be related to your work in a car hire company from which there is no real meaningful evidence of competence to be drawn. This has of course encouraged people to promote from within their own area - as they have no idea if other candidates are being truthful. This coupled with the disproportionate cutting of junior grades has resulted in a great number of people being promoted to C1 level without ever having to really properly manage people and their issues. Thus when faced with them for the first time, they struggle.

    IIRC it was a result of that nice Mr Major's government and encouraging an interchange with industry - which has certainly been the consequence, as large swathes are now down for transfer in the not too distant.

    Good luck with the job hunting, I suspect when a new one is secured you will be more damning of the way in which MOD develops the home team it has.

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    1. So many of the opinions expressed here, in particular about the department's failure to offer its non-uniformed human assets career development, adequate training and adequate financial reward and incentive, are exactly what I've been thinking myself, and hearing from thoughtful colleagues, for the past several years. The corollory of the manifest ubiquity of such opinions amongst capable C/B grades is the question of why this huge great red flashing light over the iniquitous treatment of MOD's civilian officers has been ignored for so long, and just how those at the top who have managed to evade the issue have been allowed to get away with this.


      Time is short this morning and I'm unable to address all the points I would wish to. So just a few:


      1. One of the Anons: I feel you're being a little harsh on C1s who lack staff-management experience. I work in a business area where there just isn't much opportunity to get any staff to manage, and where people tend to stay because they're specialists, the work is interesting, and they're good at what they do. Recognising this deficiency in my own profile, within the last couple of years I tried to address it by getting myself some training in managing staff. Once the (vigorously-policed) Catch-22 of 'you can't have any training in how to manage staff until you've got some staff to manage' had been, somehow, overcome, this particular jewel beyond price turned out to be a couple of days being exposed to the concepts of personality type and how to meld these to best advantage in a team. It was good-ish, listening to the woes of the other participants (several of whom were disillusioned FS types) was very illuminating, but essentially it was pretty basic. The experience just about encapsulated why it is that new people managers can be pretty bad at it, and why some never get any better: it's not their fault, really, it's the fact that the training to be a manager isn't allowed to start until far too late. Compare and contrast with the management training that military officers get, right from commissioning course: is it any wonder that a newly-advanced C1, possibly from a specialist background, might struggle with the staff thing? And don't get me started on civilian access to military staff training. That particular kettle of fish is as transparent as a bucket of murky stuff, with large chunks of subjectivity, pomposity, favoritism and quite possibly ageism (there, I've said it) swirling around in there. In my opinion. I could be wrong.


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  3. Also, the role of the CS at present is significantly more than to provide impartial advice to the Government of the day. Most people are implementing policy rather than delivering it - although the Government of this particular day have a vision which is moving to align rather better with your conjection!!!

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    1. Nice point anonymous, I can think of at least one batch of C2s promoted from a promotion board who found themselves as C1s a week later.
      The end result, C1 with 2 years experience, and utterly unemployable elsewhere, clogging up the system till they leave.
      C1 is very much the default working level now for decision taking, and authority has been pushed up to B2 level. My own view is that we've seen authority pushed up at least one grade relative to sign off power in the last few years.

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  4. And just to make the point about "knowing" Defence, I am going to ask the next 10 MOD CS I see what they know about T26. What is it and what will it do?

    Will report back tomozz, with a selection of the answers (small sample size etc taken into account). Would you like the sample slit between 1* and E2?

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  5. Didn't manage 10, the first five knew nothing about it. Comments from: The what? Best one was what's a frigate..

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    1. Surely a more sensible question anonymous is whether your area of work is RN related. If not, then that seems a somewhat pointless exercise.
      Would the average Private know about RAF procurement of new missiles or equipment?

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    2. Up to a point. In an ever more pressured working environment, we have to recognise that the lower down the chain, and the further away from the relevant area, the less important detailed knowledge of other area is. But I'd expect any competent OF5/Band B or above to have some understanding of the future Navy (and indeed Army and RAF), at least at the 'what's a T26' level, simply as part of being an intelligent middle or senior leader and manager who understands the broad range of the business and where it's going. Otherwise how can they put their own team's work into the wider context? And it's not as if this stuff isn't regularly pumped out by DMC for anyone with DII access.

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  6. The three services have long ago adapted to the purple nature of defence, particularly at command level and above. An appreciation of the assets involved and the benefits of tri service ops is essential to those in uniform.
    I may be wrong but the pinstriped enthusiasm for such issues always appears luke warm at best.
    I am sure their is no lack of talent at the MOD, but their leadership does give the impression of an insularity, not found among those at the coalface.

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    1. Maybe I'm an exception, but I was once TA, am now RNR, and work for the CS with the Navy, so while I may not be purple I'm at least... what's green and dark blue mixed? Anyone got a Farrow & Ball paint chart?

      Admittedly I point and laugh at our polyester-clad sideways-scuttling hangers-on, but then what sensible being doesn't?

      On the other hand I also enjoy sinking a few pints with colleagues from the Air Warfare Centre and their uniformed comrades, who despite their misfortune in being Air Force are still well worth talking to (and banter aside, know their jobs very well and actively try to find and fix the intraservice weaknesses).

      My leadership - definitely one, probably two up (and third level is Jon Lyle) encourage and support this sort of jointery, at least verbally.

      It can happen: it may not always do so, but it does happen in some corners.

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  7. Jon Thompson, the hopes of an awful lot of MOD CS are riding on you. Don't know how I got back to this subject: MOD civilian pay. It is absolutely shameful that the basic salary of an almost universally graduate career stream equivalent is pretty much less than half that of the uniformed rank-equivalent. And let's not forget that a civilian gets basic salary and a maximum of three thousand quid locational weighting and that's it. No subsidised travel, housing, get-you-home allowance, school fees, extra payments for having undertaken specialist training et al: none of that. Brave men and women in uniform deserve a good deal, no question. But their non-uniformed comrades do not deserve to be expected to live on the crumbs that fall from the well-stocked military board. That's just not right, and it's about time this was recognised and something was done about it.


    It's not right that the MOD civilian equivalent of a Lieutenant-Colonel/Commander/Wing Commander is paid a flat 37 thousand quid, and that there is zero incremental uplift in this pay by way of recognition of increasing skill and experience. The majority of the armed forces have incremental pay uplift to reflect increasing skill, as do professional staff in the NHS, teaching and the police service and many others. So why is an MOD professional expected to be worth just the same mean salary, year in year out, with nothing more (that is, when the government isn't imposing a mutli-year pay freeze or an 'average 1% rise' - and we all know that that means nothing at all for most of us) than a 2.5% jump that may or may not keep pace with inflation, and which every few years gets put on hold while the cumbersome union-management stand-off is allowed to runs its ponderous course and the poor (literally poor) civilian bloody infantry have no clue what they'll be earning next year. That also is just not right.


    Suggested solution: introduce equity into MOD civilian pay by creating specialist pay pools and paying highly-qualified specialists at a rate that doesn't provoke sympathy and sometimes derision amongst their uniformed colleagues. That means paying us more. Introduce pay increments to recognise increasing skill and experience. That means paying us more. Introduce a fair pay deal that lasts for several years and doesn't create a black hole of uncertainty after three, or five, or wheatever. Or, as an alternative (this would be my choice) throw the unions, whose interest in the plight of middle grades appears to be close to zero, out of the pay-negotiation equation and introduce a pay review board - like the one the military has - that would be tasked with ensuring equity in matters of pay, and which would damn well do its job when required. I can't afford a haircut, to go to the dentist, or any holiday other than under canvas and in the rain in this country. I can't afford new clothes, for work or leisure, other than from supermarkets. I certainly can't afford to eat out in a decent restaurant more than once in a blue moon. Any car journey not to and from work has to be thought about really carefully. I'm really worried about how, or in fact whether, I'm going to be able to afford to take a posting in central London again. I'm an MOD civil servant with a degree, several years' solid experience of good work in an important and exacting field, and who manages to retain some professional ambition. But if truth be told my major goals are simple survival for the next however many more years it's going to be until the government-imposed programme of impoverishing me and my civil service colleagues is halted and reversed, and to achieve a level of income that will permit retirement not into poverty. And that too is not right.

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    1. While I agree we're being exploited, I don't think you can run the military civilian equivalence to quite the level you suggest. And I wouldn't hold your breath in expectation of it getting better. Bar a bit of variation round the edges, Civil Service pay rates and most aspects of terms and conditions are set by Cabinet Office/Treasury. Jon T has little if any scope to do much in this territory. This is getting more the case under Civil Service Reform. And it looks likely to get worse for some time to come, especially for those who work outside London if local pay is introduced. MOD has neither the power nor the money to do anything but a bit of minor flex round the edges. The TUs don't have the power to do much either, whatever their aspirations, because they don't have the membership. The Government isn't going to set up a pay review body for the Civil Service. And the bit of it that has one - the SCS - has done relatively worse in recent years than more junior grades because the Government conistently ignores the any Senior Salary Review Body recommendation it doesn't like. It's got to the point where any Band B considering promotion (ha ha) could esily find themselves worse off financially, with worse terms and conditions and less job security, by taking on the extra responsiblity (always assuming it hasn't already been passed down the line as numbers fall and the work doesn't...).

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    2. I make no case for pay equivalence between the armed forces and their civilian counterparts, and never would. But there should be exposure of the huge gulf that exists between the comfortable remuneration of the one group and the miserable pay of civil servants. Neither do I hold out real hope of a pay review board, illusory sop though that of the SCS may be. These and similar issues of manifest unfairness need to have light shone upon them, however, and they need to be discussed, or in ten years' time we'll still have incredibly hardworking and dedicated graduate MOD civilians doing hard and significant work of national importance for a damn sight less per annum than Captain bloody Wales. Or rather not. They'll still manage to hook in the bright grads, for a few years at least, and they'll retain the services of the near-pensionable (though I suspect the days of being able to afford to retire at 60 have gone), but those of us in the middle, if we have any spirit left in us, will get out of the public service.

      Rhetorical points above aside, I think there is merit in examining the space within which 'minor flex' might be persuaded to occur, and seeing whether a smaller, better-paid cadre of certain specialisms not currently so rewarded could be created.

      As for local pay, do we not have that already in the London/national pay scales and the various locational allowances that exist throughout the southern commuter belt? Which raises another question: for how much longer will people on half military pay and no travel perks be able to afford to work in central London? Seems to me that four to six thousand quid and 10% increase every January for a season ticket, out of a salary that's being held at a barely-managing-to-get-by level, is a pretty effective way of concentrating Whitehall posts into the ranks of those with well-paid spouses or independent means.

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  8. I'm not a Civil Servant so I apologise for my impertinence, but most of the replies to this post are like listening to a rant in a pub,(apart from Mr Adams). There are many little and random truths without any surgical disection of any one of them, so it's difficult for an outsider to constructively participate. That's why I am greatly educated by Sir Humph's disections and why I offer mine.
    The CS has a cultural problem that it refuses to face and, at this time, with the departure of Ms Ursula Brennan, it has chosen to perpetuate for the convenience of that culture. Perish the thought that the boat should be rocked, 'though sinking it is and under the very problems that everyone has here mentioned.
    Promotion from within cannot be justified when changes are required. Organisations exist in only one of four states (and I paraphrase):-
    A) It's a cash cow; do not disturb. (You try explaining that to the Chinese)
    B) Investing for profit/cost savings.
    C) Investing for growth/efficiency.
    D) Going bankrupt.
    The same organisations are constantly moving from one to another and use their culture to achieve viable answers. Statist organisations, however, use their culture to resist change or distort it for minimum impact.
    Mr Thompson will come in like a lion lording it over his females, then he will use the culture to protect his pride.
    Changing ones culture means facing up to your demons, facing up to the perceptions of people outside your domain and commitment to an environment of constant change, feed back, modification and mistakes. Even mistakes are progress; you now know what not to do.
    The MoD must first describe itself in terms of those paradigms which form the mind set of its personnel. Whilst commitment to change MUST start at the top, the culture of the organisation can only be described by the sort of people who have written so eloquently on this blog.
    But enough. My two gurus were Tom Peters and Ralph Stracy and I attach something which should be on the office wall of every young man in the MoD.

    "The champions of a business are those managers who detect a disturbance caused by change and develop an emotional commitment to doing something about it. They are in touch with the market place and the shop floor; they have multiple perspectives; they are able to draw intuitive conclusions from inadequate information. Champions have a determination required to fight for and push their ideas to fruition. But they are also realistic and flexible - they know that they are dealing with uncertainty and the outcome may well be the unexpected success."
    Ralph Stracy - Dynamic Strategic Management for the 1990s - Kogan Page

    I know. I've been there, done it and got the medals and the last thing the MoD wants now is a bl**dy accountant. It needs a leader who might be an accountant.

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