I started drafting this post as a follow up to my recent comment on All change at the top of the UK civil service. It was going to be an analysis of some minor points and discrepancies in the details released yesterday about this new job. But as I looked at that detail I thought ‘No, there’s something bigger here.’ Something bigger that makes me think this is a potential cock-up in the making.

Where to start?

First, what is a CE (chief executive)? Common parlance would assume it’s the leader at the top of an organisation, responsible to a board or a committee in the private and voluntary sectors, to politicians in the public sector.

Not so in the UK civil service. This ‘chief executive’ will

  • be accountable ultimately to the Prime Minister
  • work day to day to the Minister for the Cabinet Office
  • work day to day on efficiency issues to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and
  • in management terms report to the Cabinet Secretary, who is the Head of the Civil Service.

Some of this complexity is inherent in politically-accountable organisations, some is not. The polite phrase for this used to be matrix management. The Scots call it a guddle.

When you dive into the detail of the job description, you find that the chief executive only has ‘executive control’ (what I guess I’d call line management) over

the commercial, supplier management, digital, property, HR, project management, shared services and civil service reform functions.

Essential as these are, they’re what I’d call support functions. Apart from that, the job description features words like ‘support the Cabinet Secretary’, ‘attend as an observer’, and ‘play a key role … in corporate leadership’ (all my emphases). This is not CE territory.

Perhaps the truest indicator of role and status in an organisation is salary. Wouldn’t you expect a chief executive to have the highest salary in an organisation? The clue’s in the word ‘chief.’ Where they don’t, at least in the public sector, problems ensue. Ask any hospital chief executive trying to manage medical consultants. Ask any traditionally-constituted local authority education department manager what it’s like dealing with a head teacher who earns more than you, whatever your job title.

The civil service chief executive will have an annual salary of £180,000 – £200,000 although ‘more may be available for an exceptional candidate, subject to approval’. Helpfully, the UK government – and praise to them for this – publishes the salaries of all ‘high earner’ civil servants. The most recent figures available are for October 2013. Then, the cabinet secretary was on a salary scale of £235,000 – £239,999, although at the time he wasn’t head of the civil service as well. So his salary may be more now. In one sense, fair enough. He will be the CE’s line manager.

But cast your eye over the rest of the list. Of a total of 171 senior civil servants, 51 or 30% will earn at least as much as the CE, and some more. Since the post is responsible for driving the government’s efficiency and reform programme the auguries are not good. Am I cynical in thinking that those more highly paid leaders, not least the powerful departmental permanent secretaries, will see the so-called CE as the cabinet secretary’s helper, to be propitiated for his/her boss’s sake, but to be kept at arm’s length when it comes to their own department and own ministers?

And what sort of paragon is to fill this post?

Here the information provided is ambiguous. The civil service’s own pack says

an outstanding individual who has a proven track record of running large complex, multiple-stakeholder organisations through a period of change and cost reduction … which would be likely to be in the private sector.

Their recruitment consultants, an American company called Korn/Ferry International, says

an outstanding individual who has a proven track record of running large complex, multiple-stakeholder organisations in the private sector.

I guess you can take your pick or give Korn/Ferry a call to see which version is right. In any event the aspiration is clear – someone who is or is likely to be from the private sector.

That’s fine, and I wouldn’t exclude them, as I wouldn’t exclude an outstanding candidate whose experience is wholly or mainly in the public or voluntary sectors. But a word of warning to whoever insisted on this requirement (Conservative Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude?). The public sector is littered with failed appointments from the private sector. For obvious reasons. The political environment is very different from that of a major private sector company. Some can make the leap. Many cannot. Candidates are warned.

The other aspect I’d worry about if I were recruiting for this post is the salary. You may think it’s fat-cat generous. But it looks pretty modest by private sector standards and certainly isn’t going to attract someone with ‘a proven track record of running large complex, multiple-stakeholder organisations in the private sector’ – unless they’re into charity work.

Finally, a word of caution on Korn/Ferry. I have no reason to doubt their professional competence. But if you look at their current portfolio of 55 opportunities you will find that most are private sector, only two say they are in the UK, and only one – this post – is a government job. I hope for the sake of candidates and the civil service they are aware of all the complexities the new chief executive will encounter.

Footnote. The links to online material about this post will doubtless not work after it has been filled. I have saved the civil service’s own ‘spec’ for the post as well as Korn/Ferry’s web site page about it.

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