05 July 2017

Jen Gold argues that the Civil Service must improve the way it attracts and develops talent if it is to cope with the challenges of Brexit or national tragedies like Grenfell Tower. 

Recent events have really brought home the point that the Civil Service of the future needs to be a more fluid and permeable place”. Realising this vision is critical to ensuring that it is equipped to deal with the challenges it now faces.

Just last month it was announced that experienced New Zealand trade negotiator, Crawford Falconer, would join the Department for International Trade as Second Permanent Secretary. As the UK prepares to take back areas of responsibility such as trade from the EU, he is one of many external hires that the Civil Service will need to bring on board (and retain) in order to fill critical skills gaps.

Similarly, the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated the need for the rapid redeployment of civil servants – including legal advisers, policy specialists, and communications staff – from one part of government to another to respond to a national tragedy.

Whitehall’s poor track record

Whitehall has a poor track record of successfully moving people both into and across the Civil Service. At today's Institute for Government (IfG) event, Catherine Baxendale reflected on a number of common problems highlighted in her 2014 Cabinet Office-commissioned report How to best attract, induct and retain talent recruited into the Senior Civil Service. In particular she noted:

- Weak human resources support: Poor inductions have left many external hires lacking the knowledge they need to do their jobs properly. A lack of support for career development has meant many external recruits see no future in the Civil Service beyond their current roles.

- Closed organisational cultures: While Whitehall departments have their own distinct cultures, many share an aversion to the new ideas and working styles of external hires. Baxendale quoted from one of sources: “intellectually the Civil Service wants to import talent, but as soon as the operation is over, the antibodies attack”.

This lack of support and ‘closed mentality’ not only harms talent retention (external recruits have a higher resignation rate) but also undermines the value of former civil servants returning to Whitehall following secondments or stints in other sectors.

The audience at last week’s event also heard from Jill Rutter, IfG Programme Director, who spent six years at British Petroleum (BP) in between two spells in the Civil Service. When returning to Whitehall in 2004, she encountered a staggering “lack of curiosity from Civil Service colleagues” about what she had learnt during her time away – and crucially what the Civil Service could learn from her insights. In fact, her time at BP was generally dismissed “as time badly spent” when she could have been advancing her Civil Service career.

So what, if anything, has changed recently?

Without doubt, the most significant recent change has come from Civil Service leaders adopting a more joined-up approach to workforce management.

As Rupert McNeil, the Government’s Chief People Officer, told the IfG audience last week, this has resulted in a number of key developments:

  • Civil Service professions have new cross-departmental leadership structures that are providing more career development support to external hires (e.g. professional networks, structured career pathways, and learning and development opportunities) as well as enabling expertise to be rapidly redeployed across Whitehall.
  • The introduction of a more structured approach to induction, including assigning a ‘buddy’ to senior hires, to ensure that new recruits have a better understanding of how to navigate Whitehall.
  • A new Leadership Academy will shortly be equipping civil servants with the leadership skills and working knowledge they need for senior departmental roles (and therefore enabling greater mobility between Civil Service grades and across departments).   

What still needs to happen?

When it comes to managing talent at more senior grades, the Civil Service still needs to replicate the quality of candidate care and attention to deployment they have achieved with the graduate-entry fast stream. Some professions – notably finance and human resources – are putting in place more coordinated senior-level support but it is by no means systematic.

More needs to be learnt from other governments. The Australian Public Service, as Jill Rutter highlighted at the IfG event, has a more structured approach to external hires. They can enter government at a lower grade before moving into the more exposed role that was intended for them once they have acclimatised.

And much more needs to be done to measure, monitor and report on progress, so we can really tell if genuine progress has been made - and is sticking.

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