A smaller Whitehall must better manage its best talent

25 October 2010

'Fast Streamers' are the treasured resource of the Civil Service. Selected through a rigorous process that marks them out as the future leadership cadre, they are much sought after by teams wishing to pick from the conveyor belt of the brightest minds. Whitehall should rethink its approach to how it manages this resource.

Last week we compared the first three years of a Fast Streamer with the first three years of in a consultancy. The contrast was illuminating. Despite the difficult and exacting selection process, Fast Streamers are likely to have no formal induction to the Civil Service, although there are Departments that are honourable exceptions.

Having applied to join the Civil Service, they find that their development is at the whim of their Department and the best talent in Whitehall is still expected to learn on the job. 15 days a year are set aside for training, but this has to fit around the immediate pressures of work.

Training before taking up posts

Training is nearly all skills based. Fast Streamers are not given a thorough introduction to the knowledge and analysis their Department holds, nor of the business and policy lessons of the Department, and there is almost no introduction to the objectives and functions of wider Government.

By contrast, the Management Consultant receives two months initial training upon starting to ensure they are ready to represent their company in client facing relationships and are offered structured training leading to recognised qualifications. They also receive a core set of obligatory in-house training. As they become more experienced, the recruit is matched to projects according to their skills and there are opportunities to develop areas of specialism further.

Some Departments think very hard about placing their Fast Streamers to make sure they work in an area where they can develop with a line manager who is committed to them.  But others do not and too much is still left to chance – both for the first posting and subsequent navigation around the system.

Managing Fast Stream development

Fast Streamers receive little continuity of care as they move postings and line managers. They are encouraged to sample different types of jobs, to develop the range needed for promotion to the Senior Civil Service, but not to broaden any subject expertise they may have come in with.

Some Departments are relaxed about interdepartmental moves – others hang on to their new acquisitions with a vice like grip. The generalist is, through this experience, expected to be a jack of all trades but, as the cliché doesn’t quite go, “master of a few with a plausible story to tell about the rest”.

In the consultancy, ongoing management is formalised. Trainees are set up with a buddy, someone from the same area but with a year’s experience in the firm, and a career councillor – a senior in the trainee’s area. The creation of an entry cohort also gives them access to their own professional support network.

Getting the best from Fast Streamers

In an era of tight controls over recruitment and staff numbers, investing in people so expensively recruited seems to be something worth concentrating on. In fact, even without this context, it would benefit the individual and the service by making them better equipped for the role.

Some simple steps could make a big difference:

  • intensive formal training before taking up first post
  • a common start date, so induction can be co-ordinated so people join the civil service, not a department
  • introductory ‘experiential’ time in the Department examining all aspects of the business
  • allocation of a mentor from the Senior Civil Service responsible for their development for the first three years of their career

With a smaller Whitehall and the need for a flexible and expert workforce that has experience of the world outside the civil service, Fast Stream management is a serious matter. In the long term, Whitehall loses very good people every year from its current chaotic approach and it fails to get the best from those it retains.

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Comments (3)

  1. Owen Jackson on 26 October 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Interesting article, thanks. Couple of points that sprung to mind:

    Yes, FS throws you in the deep end. But would months of structured training in private sector companies not risk masking weaknesses in new employees (papering over the cracks, if you will). The “sink or swim” approach may cause more to drop out early on but may act as an excellent way of separating wheat from chaff very quickly.

    Is starting everyone in one intake year off as one cohort such a good thing? Doesn’t it risk isolating (and singling out as “special”) FS’ers more than is already the case?

    Fully agree with “the need for a flexible and expert workforce that has experience of the world outside the civil service”.

  2. Laila James on 28 October 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I think Ian makes some very valid points. Many Fast Streamers do not get the attention and necessary development required to unleash them as future leaders and this is particularly valid as we head towards squeezed budgets and smaller departments.

    However firstly there is a significant variance of quality of development across departments and this needs to be analysed and resolved.

    Secondly Fast Streamers are not the only bright people in Whitehall. Many graduates have opted not to tread this route and were recruited through general competitions, these civil servants must not slip from the radar just because they don’t wear the FS badge.

    There is no reason why Ian’s recommendations cannot be applied to all bright civil servants who seek to be leaders one day. Any attempts to make Government departments sleeker and sharper as a result of the Spending Review, should be used as an opportunity to radically change the recruitment and development of all staff who aspire to be leaders.

    Lets have a dynamic shift away from the archaic cultures civil servants are still submerged in deep to their knees. Changing traditional cultures is difficult but it needs to be done now within this window.

  3. Ian Moss on 1 November 2010 at 11:04 am

    Owen – I got the impression the private sector approach has within its design a desire to sift out people who will not quite work out in the company, so it acts as a sorting mechanism as well. Sink or swim certainly has its benefits, but it also can put people in inappropriate tasks, and not use their productive capacity wisely.

    Both Owen and Laila make the point about the rest of the work force, and I completely agree. I was confining myself to one aspect of organisational management, the fast stream, and there are wider aspects that I could equally comment on. How well internal candidates are primed and encouraged to join the fast stream at any point in their career is one important aspect. Another is to the way that the rapid movement of people between roles should be managed. A third aspect is how institutional memory and expertise is rewarded and how the historic structures can be flexed to avoid management responsibilities being the only route to reward.

    These are busy times for organisational design, and difficult times for managing transition. I think Whitehall needs to think flexibly about its historic model and structures to keep good people, experience and knowledge at all levels of the organisation. The Institute will continue to look at these wider issues as part of its remit to improve the effectiveness of Government.

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