A smaller Whitehall must better manage its best talent
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.