The news this week has been dominated by the announcement that civil servants were allegedly responsible for the collapse of the deal to transfer operations on the West Coast Mainline from Virgin Trains to First Group. Reportedly the problems stemmed down to systemic errors by civil servants, some of whom have been suspended. This whole saga has focused attention on the civil service, and questions are being asked as to whether the system is able to generate civil servants of sufficient calibre to be able to handle immensely complex projects. Humphrey has followed the debate with interest for although he has no knowledge of the deal, nor the department in question, he does feel that this has focused a spotlight on the real challenges facing the civil service, and particularly the MOD, today.
The key issue, in the authors mind at least, is that todays civil service seems heavily weighted in favour of developing generalist desk officers, and not deep specialists. In the MOD at least career structures are theoretically built around four broad bands, listed below as an example of the career structures in place:
Grades E2, E1, D: Entry level administration work, basic management of small sections, some budgetary responsibility. Fundamentally the classic admin roles that is the stereotypical image of civil servants. Well over half of the MOD CS (some 30,000 staff) sits within these grades. Salary ranges from £15,000 – roughly £25,000 at top end of D band scale.
Grade C2 – C1: Middle management. Promotion to this grade achieved by short assessment and competence based interview. These sort of roles involve project management roles, policy making roles, some management and also home to many specialist areas such as intelligence analysts. Salary ranges from £26,000 to roughly £44,000. Roughly 16,000 MOD civil servants at this level in 2011, but this is dropping dramatically.
Grade B2 – B2: Seen by some as the first point of ‘senior management’, but perhaps better described as the funnel between the mainstream grades and the senior civil service. Promotion to this grade is via complex assessment process held over several months. The level at which individuals are leading teams, running major projects, or acting as senior civil servant overseeing wide range of functions, particularly at some major bases. Salary range is roughly £45,000 - £55,000 for a B2, and £58,000 – almost £70,000 for a B1. There were roughly 1800 B2 and 700 B1 posts in 2011, but again, numbers are dropping considerably.
Senior Civil Service (Grade 1-4, analogous to the 1-4* system): Entry is by competitive selection through long assessment process over several months. At this point individuals sit within a much wider pan government plot, and are expected to provide leadership of wide ranging areas, run directorates, budgets and business areas. They would typically lead large teams with multiple smaller assistant heads. At the most senior levels (Grade 3 or 4) they occupy roles of strategic leadership. The MOD PUS is an SCS Grade 4. In 2011 there were 270 SCS, and this number will fall considerably.
What is immediately clear is that there are three main ‘choke points’ in a civil service career – the jump from Band D to Band C, then to B2, and finally to the SCS. The vast majority of civil servants will never get beyond Band C1 – even in 2011, there were 83,000 MOD civil servants and under 2000 were at Band B or above. (All sources taken from the DASA website – click HERE for the link)
So, why does this matter for civil service expertise? From the authors’ perspective, the problem seems to be one of growing talent internally and then retaining it. The much vaunted Fast stream, which is the most well-known entry point to the CS, brings very small numbers of recruits into the system at Band C2, then aims to have them pass the B2 selection process within 6-8 years. This produces a generation of talent who will move posts regularly (6 months – 1 year) and gain exposure of a wide range of business areas, in order to develop sufficient skills so as to be able to pass the B2 (or wider govt equivalent) assessment process. The Fast-stream is able to put money into training its staff to a high level, and sending them on a wide range of development courses and opportunities in an attempt to pass the selection process and then occupy high profile positions in the future, ahead of entering the SCS in their late thirties to early forties.
The challenge is that for the rest of the MOD, no such career management or access to training exists. Career moves are self-managed, with individuals finding posts through internal trawls and moving when it suits their interests. Site moves are usually not funded, meaning the individual has to pay a lot of money to change location to move on promotion for development. Similarly training budgets are usually the first thing to be slashed – despite best intentions, this authors personal experience is that it is nearly impossible to get training in specific roles – either the courses no longer run, or the T&S funding cannot be sourced to support a course away from the office.
What this means is that for the vast majority of civil servants, a situation has arisen where there is next to no career development opportunity, and almost no professional training. While the specifics of the West Coast situation are unknown to the author, one must ask how much training the individuals in question actually received.
So, the first lesson to take away from this experience is that the quality of the civil servant you get is directly linked to the amount you are willing to invest in training. It may be worth asking whether the civil service as a whole is suffering due to a reduced investment in training.
Upward transfer of risk
The next challenge facing the civil service is the seemingly inexorable upward transfer of risk away from desk officers. The electronic office is a wonderful thing, enabling infinitely improved ways of sharing information and passing documents around. But, it does come at a cost – it is often much easier to pass work to colleagues, or seniors and ‘just copy them in’ to a document, rather than staff internally then issue for comments.
In some ways this is a good thing, but Humphrey worries that there is a growing tendency to delegate risk upwards. Rather than taking decisions at an appropriate level, even relatively experienced civil servants now seem to push routine matters to B2/Grade 7 level, or even higher, in an effort to get resolution or even approval. This authors’ worry is that it is a little too tempting to copy ones senior official into an email chain, and ask them for a decision, rather than actually make a decision and inform them in due course.
Is there a growing danger that as this culture increases, it will become ever harder for civil servants to actually take decisions at most working levels, without referring further up the chain? How will newly promoted B2 or SCS Grade 1 staff cope when taking up posts if for their whole careers they’ve never been in a position of real decision taking responsibility? Having spent their careers to date pushing decisions up the chain, they suddenly seem to reach the nexus where real decisions have to be made – will they be sufficiently skilled or able to cope with this?
One cannot help but wonder whether some of the more embarrassing civil service mistakes in the last few years owe something to the culture of sending information to a senior for a decision, then an overworked official who is at a nexus of receiving this sort of request, is either too overworked to make a decision in sufficient time, or without sufficient subject knowledge. Could mistakes be rooted in a culture of expecting ones senior to decide what to do, and not being willing (or able) to seize the initiative and make something happen?
Generalist not Specialist
One issue which is a challenge is the way in which the civil service seems to aspire to being a meritocracy, where all are encouraged to become generalists, transferring about the system to develop in different business areas, without putting down too many roots. In theory, someone joining the civil service today as an E Grade could, with the right support and development, aspire to become a Fast-streamer and eventually become PUS.
A common comment the author hears is that the system appears to not encourage people becoming deep experts in their fields. Rather than encouraging staff to develop long term skills and abilities in one business area, staff are pushed to move about to develop their ‘core competences’ to demonstrate their suitability for promotion. It is nearly impossible to become a C Band or B Band civil servant without moving across several business areas. This is fine for those with the funds to afford the mobility required to meet this commitment, but most people simply cannot afford to do this. Friends of the author comment that they feel their career (at whatever grade) has hit a brick wall because they cannot afford to move house or location to start a new job. Others enjoy their line of work, often in niche areas, and would like to develop within it and over time aspire to becoming a C grade head of department. But, because they have not been able to develop their competences more broadly, they are unable to do so, and would not be able to pass an interview to do so.
Here lies a real challenge in the system. Civil servants are encouraged to develop as generalists, but outside the Fast stream no funding is available to let them move location. If they do move to develop, there is no guarantee that they will ever go back to (or can afford to go back to) their first location as a more senior member of staff and use their skills and knowledge to effectively manage the business area.
The system needs to develop some way of enabling people to stay in one business area, but feel they have opportunities for career development – this way it ensures continuity of knowledge, with a credible pool of personnel who will stay in an area for years, if not decades, while feeling they have sufficient development and promotion opportunities to sustain a career. This may in turn provide a reduced chance of the sort of mistakes which occurred in other departments, as experienced individuals can spot problems before they emerge, nipping them in the bud rather than seeing them in the Sun.
If Humphrey could put forward one ‘good idea’, he would strongly advocate the introduction of a ‘specialist’ grade scheme. Allow civil servants to nominate themselves as generalists or specialists in specific areas – then nominate whether a post is a general or specialist post. For those C or B grade Posts nominated as Specialist, a different set of recruitment criteria should be applied, enabling people with technical knowledge, or Project Management skills and not generalist knowledge to compete effectively for them. This small step would reintroduce a credible career path for the many mid level civil servants who want a career, but who do not want to leave their home or area in order to do so, or who do not want to go through the years of preparation required to pass the B2 selection process. It would not undermine the Fast stream, but would ensure that the system produced genuine experts in different areas rather than relying on a generalist with a broad background. This seems to work well for the Military, where different branches have various number of tied slots of OF5 or 1* level, allowing members to credibly aspire to certain posts relevant to their own aspirations.
Avoiding the Mid Career Blues?
One major issue is that of producing a civil service with sufficient technical staff who are motivated to remain in it, rather than leaving for the private sector. One has to wonder how many errors occur because the staff that knew the answer had left to go to the private sector, rather than remain in the system.
Paying public servants more is never a popular decision, and one sure way to get the tabloid press baying for blood. But the problem remains that the civil service has to try and attract a broad range of capabilities. Personally this author thinks the challenge isn’t at the lower ends of the spectrum, where pay for E and D grade workers seems to compare very fairly to the private sector. The challenge is for those in the C and B grades – people who have experience, expertise and knowledge, but who are hitting the point in their life where their salaries are being left behind.
No matter how rewarding a civil service career is, when you are being paid £26,000 per year to do project management work, with tens of thousands of redundancies, no prospect of career development, and a frozen pay progression system, then moving to the private sector suddenly becomes a tempting prospect. The system needs to work out how to retain talent – and also how to bring it in at a more senior level too.
The author has friends who would love to come to join the civil service, and who have a superb range of skills gleaned from years in the private sector. They’ve looked into joining and realised that to transfer in (assuming there was a job opening) would mean incurring a £50 - £100,000 paycut. The very best talent at mid management level cannot afford to leave the private sector and join the civil service. Similarly, the system is not set up to recruit those with experience, or those who leave and then want to come back in later. How does one create a system of bringing in the very best external talent to work for the civil service, without using contractors, and without incurring a vastly more expensive paybill?
There is no right answer to this issue. Humphrey remains proud to be a civil servant, and its incredibly embarrassing to read of the sort of errors which occurred in the West Coast saga. To the authors minds, the issue is trying to address how one retains and develops deep experience within a system which excels at producing a small number of generalist SCS each year, but which seems less good at producing deep experts who feel motivated to remain.
Not everyone wants an MOD civil service career – many staff are very happy in their own world, doing their job and going home each day. But the system has to try to provide a means of developing staff hungry for success, and retaining their skills in the right area. The civil service is good, but with some minor tinkering it could be even greater.