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Rank and Fire Civil Servants: Is the Government right?

Oh dear, Frances Maude seems to be at it again. Early in his reign as Cabinet Office Minister, he was asked at the annual ‘Civil Service Live’ conference by an audience member whether “Civil Servants were the new Miners?”. Now as any effective politician, Frances Maude was able to sidestep that suggestion, but many civil servants have felt that they have been in the central firing line of the Coalition Government from early on.

Certainly, my experience within the civil service would support that view and they came into power with a very clear idea of how they would reform the Civil Service, from public sector pension reform to employment rights. For example, one of the first steps they took was to abolish the Civil Service Appeal Board that used to consider claims of unfair dismissal from civil servants – a prize that successive governments had been keen on.

The current campaign Worst civil servants to be sacked highlighted in the Daily Telegraph appears to be an attempt to try and ‘rank’ all 434,000 civil servants with the aim to make it easier to sack under-performing staff.

In particular, Frances Maude argues: “What we need to end up with is the way performance management is done in most organisations, which is to force managers to do rankings, to rate people in order of performance. Otherwise, the temptation always is for everybody to be ‘above average’. We need to force managers to rank. This will take time. There has been no incentive for managers to take tough decisions and have difficult conversations. That can change and it is one of the issues we will be addressing in our civil service reform plans”.

The difficulty here is that no evidence is produced of the numbers of underperforming civil servants that justify such a radical rethink. It seems that this proposal may be down more to the current political difficulties of the government where the Prime Minister has faced criticism that it is the civil servants that have in ‘Yes Minister’ fashion frustrated them in their policy plans, and the activism of some trade unions. It is for example very noticeable that the article on the need for reform referred to suggestions that the civil service could somehow cope with a 90% cut in its numbers – quite laughable in my opinion but this might just be a shot across the bows for the trade unions in case they plan to stand in the way of these reform plans. In any case, it seems that the Cabinet Office is determined to bring forward plans to rank civil servants.

Now at the moment, civil servants are assessed in slightly different ways across government and there is an aspiration for a centralised system of appraisals but this idea of ranking could well herald even more bureaucracy to assess where in the ranking the near half a million individuals should sit.

In terms of trying to encourage managers to have that ‘difficult conversation’ with staff who may be underperforming, trying to change behaviours will require addressing some key areas of resistance:

  • Quite often, managers don’t take action with staff because the HR processes are not straight forward, they are worried about the impact of employment law legislation (which they have limited knowledge of) and there has been a 50% cut of HR staff in the civil service through its ‘Next Generation HR’ (NGHR)  programme (nicknamed by some HR practioners as ‘No Generation HR’) with most departments using some kind of share service centre approach and a number of managers not feeling confident of how to take action to improve performance through this kind of ‘impersonal’ service;
  • It’s not uncommon for some managers to take the view that with the reductions of staff they have already had to contend with (civil service numbers have been cut by 43,000 or 9% in the last 12 months alone) that they would far rather have underperforming staff as opposed to no staff i.e. that if they sack staff they know that they probably will not be allowed to recruit replacements;
  • There is no getting away from the fact that the civil service tends to take a far more cautious and risk-averse approach to managing its staff compared to the private sector, where they are more inclined to take the chance that someone will not make a claim of unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal or at least be prepared to pay someone off which does not require the use of taxpayers money- something that is always in the forefront of civil servants minds.

My sense overall is that the government will strive ahead without addressing these cultural issues because they are very impatient for change but that will just lead to the planned reform having limited impact because managers will be reluctant to accept the need to take firm action with staff because of the factors above. This is unlikely to help anyone - government or staff where the root causes of the problem really do need to be addressed. However, it will be interesting to say what the government's strategy and plan to change things will be.