01 October 2015

The Civil Service used to be a career for life. But it now it recognises that it both needs to give those it recruits young more flexibility, and be able to attract and retain talented people who started their career elsewhere – especially if it is going to fill gaps in commercial and digital skills. Jill Rutter highlights the issues.

At Institute for Government event last week, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood was eloquent about his vision for a more porous Civil Service: “I don’t think we are going to have as many people coming in at age 21, working for 30-odd years or 40 years; people will want more, or at least the option of, a more ‘in and out’ career. I think we need to be able to offer all those different sorts of career opportunities. I’d like people to think they can have three to five good years, they can be trained up as an apprentice or a Fast Streamer or regular entrant; they could leave for a while; and have a very good chance of coming back in mid-career”.

A 'revolving door' career is part of the vision – though realistically, the Civil Service needs to recognise that some skills are more transferable than others, and that unless the Civil Service competes on pay it may be easier to see good people leave than to attract them back. But the other part of the picture is of a Civil Service that is able to recruit and retain more people from outside. When this was last discussed at the Institute, Sir Jeremy’s predecessor was rather cavalier about the failure of outsiders to make the grade – in stark contrast to his Australian counterpart, who saw external recruits as an important way of improving the talent pool.

While his predecessor as Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell seemed to have a ‘sink or swim’ approach to new entrants, Sir Jeremy seemed to recognise that there was a mixed picture and appeared more sensitive to some of the challenges they faced in adapting to the peculiarities of the Civil Service: “we’ve got many good examples of people who’ve landed well, have loved it, and have gone on to become permanent secretaries. We’ve got some other examples of people who just felt at sea, just didn’t understand the jargon, didn’t understand the secret language, just didn’t really get on.” Sir Jeremy also said: “that’s a failure of the Civil Service because I very passionately believe that we should be open to all the talents; it’s not just a diversity issue, it’s a difference issue.” He laid particular stress on the first six months of a new recruit’s time in post.

This may signal a belated recognition that the top of the Civil Service is taking more notice of the messages from the report by Catherine Baxendale, former HR director of Tesco. She was asked by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to investigate reports of ‘tissue rejection’ as outsiders failed to integrate. Her report noted the big difference in resignation rates between external hires and longer-serving civil servants: “while external hires make up just under one-quarter of the Senior Civil Service (24%), they account for almost half of the resignations (46%). Resignation rates increase at more senior levels: external Top 200 members [the most senior Civil Service leaders] have the highest resignation rates (13.7%) compared to 10.8% for Directors and 5.5% for Deputy Directors”.

She attributed this to the feeling many leavers had that: “these positives (breadth of job, intellectual horsepower of the civil service) at some point become outweighed by organisational and cultural frustrations, plus financial considerations, and they feel they have to leave. Some comment on the difficulties of assimilation from outside, with previous experience not taken into account or utilised effectively.” The report was finally published in the pre-election in-tray clearance of 27 March – along with a minimalist, gritted-teeth response from the Civil Service that lacked any of the characteristics of an effective action plan – with no accountabilities, metrics or plans for reporting progress.

Sir Jeremy’s comments suggest he expects departments to take ‘difference’ seriously and to put in place proper schemes to integrate and get the most out of newcomers. But only a day after Sir Jeremy appeared at the Institute for Government, the new permanent secretary diversity and inclusion objectives were published. Not a single one of these objectives (which ran to 44 pages!) referred specifically to actions or targets on helping new mid- or senior level recruits integrate better. If permanent secretaries are supposed to be taking this as seriously as other dimensions of inclusion, that seems an odd omission.

In the longer term, the Civil Service may need a much more strategic approach to more senior new entrants – recruiting for careers not positions, and more actively managing integration – as the Australians appear to do. These are issues the Institute hopes to investigate further next year.

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