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
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 yesterdayThe 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.