I was intrigued by an article on Why performance rankings in the civil service are discriminatory that appeared on The Guardian’s web site yesterday, by Sue Ferns, director of communications and research at the Prospect trade union.

The gist of her article can be summarised in two sentences

When the government introduced a new performance management system in the civil service that forced managers to identify 10% of their staff as the lowest performers, my union, Prospect, said the consequences would be dire … Managers are being forced to name their worst performers, and it’s often black and minority ethnic, disabled and older staff.

She gives examples, based on answers to parliamentary written questions from various departments and agencies:

  • in the Department for Communities and Local Government 19% of staff rated as under-performing are from ethnic minorities (they use that horrible acronym BME – black and minority ethnic) compared to the 10.1% of civil servants in the department who declare their ethnicity as BME
  • in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 8.8% of employees declare they are disabled but account for 30% of poor performers
  • 9% of staff across all departments and agencies surveyed are under 30, but they account for 27% of top performers overall and 43% in the Treasury Solicitor’s department.

For the purposes of these comments I will assume these figures are accurate, in which case Ms Ferns has cause for complaint. Let’s take two bites at why this might be the case.

First, let’s assume that what is going on does, more or less, measure the ‘performance’ of employees (you’ll see later that I put the word in inverted commas for a reason).

If that’s the case, Ferns does correctly identify a potentially fundamental issue with the civil service performance management system – institutional discrimination. And if the new civil service chief executive John Manzoni takes the organisation’s own core values seriously – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – he needs, to be blunt, to pull his finger out quickly to find out what’s going on and eliminate any discrimination that is confirmed.

In the meantime, I have a small suggestion for what part of the problem might be. My guess is that ethnic minority and disabled employees are concentrated in the lower pay bands. That might be worthy of attention itself but I suspect the performance management system bears more heavily on them than on more senior people. The system is based on evaluating people’s performance against the civil service competency framework. No harm in having competent employees of course. But even the lowest paid administrative assistants (salary c. £12,000 per year) are expected to perform against up to 51 competencies, including

  • exploit new technologies and help colleagues to do the same
  • challenge others appropriately where they see wastage
  • take ownership of issues, focus on providing the right solution and keep customers and delivery partners up to date with progress
  • participate in quality assurance of products or services.

That’s right. For junior employees on £12,000 a year. Not realistic.

I have written about this system previously. I’m not sure where older workers might fit in the pay hierarchy but my guess is that they will have been around for some time and, if I were them, I would find it quite challenging to adapt to the bureaucracy and jargon of this framework.

Second, however, I have a more fundamental cause for complaint about what’s going on here, one that Sue Ferns does not touch on. She says her trade union does

…not oppose fair systems of performance management that support people to develop and progress in their careers. And evidence from other sectors of the economy show this can be done.

This is where I’d part company from Prospect.

‘Performance management’ and ‘performance appraisal’ are pernicious ways to manage employees. I set out my reasons for saying this when I wrote about Civil service reform. I concluded

The truth is that how people perform at work is substantially the result of the system (some say as much as 90%+).  Managers (leaders if you will) are responsible for how the system works and they recruit staff, decide what work they do and how, train them, promote them, manage and support them…and so on.

So the ‘performance’ of those ‘bottom 10%’ of civil servants is substantially the responsibility of their more senior managers. To stigmatise them as under-performing is a condemnation of civil service managers and leaders. If that’s too radical a conclusion, anyone interested might also ponder the arithmetic fallacy behind ranking people into percentage bands I describe.

I don’t know whether Prospect seriously believe in performance management of employees. I can understand, sadly, why they might feel tactically they have no option to do the best they can for their members in the given context. But in not condemning the very principles of performance management in the civil service they miss a big trick.

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