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.


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.


TeletubbiesIt’s always interesting when a human touch breaks through the corporate identity.

On a trip to Edinburgh yesterday, I saw two construction vehicles personalised by their respective employees.

The first was a private builder’s flatbed truck. On each of the upright corners of the grill behind the cab a Teletubbie had been impaled, one green, one purple. They looked as if they’d been retrieved from a skip and their limbs flopped around in the truck’s slipstream like miniature corpses. Not a positive image.

The other was a bit closer to home for me and altogether more subtle – a vehicle belonging to the council I used to work for. Most of their vehicles are painted white (it’s cheaper) and sport the council logo in blue. They’re usually well-maintained and look in good condition. This one was no exception. But printed in the corporate blue and apparently professionally in capitals below the window at the rear of the cab, were the words ‘IT’S NAE EASY.’

The message was given added meaning for me because the council’s slogan, short  version, is ‘the very best of Scotland.’ I know because I wrote it. OK, as specified by councillors, but I did write it (a councillor, now out of favour with the majority of his colleagues, suggested adding the ‘very’).

I just loved the conjunction of ‘It’s nae easy’ and ‘The very best’. What could be more true? Striving to be the best isn’t easy and whoever added this discreet adornment to this particular vehicle should be praised. I hope their wisdom is used in that council’s employee induction programme to get over the more profound truth.


Civil service competency frameworkThere used to be a rather prissy middle-aged shop assistant in BBC TV’s Chewin’ the Fat who would listen patiently to two other characters talking pretentious nonsense until a gap in their conversation, when she would sniff the air disdainfully and utter the immortal words ‘I smell shite.’

I’ve just caught up with the Civil Service Competency Framework 2012-2017 and I smell – well, pretentious nonsense.

The idea is simple and makes sense: a guide for civil servants which tells them what they should be good at and how they should behave.

Have I expressed that clearly? I hope so, and I hope the great Sir Ernest Gowers, author of The Complete Plain Words, would agree.

I suspect the authors of the new ‘competency framework’ – ‘Civil Service Human Resources’ – have not read Gowers.

He wrote his book to ‘help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade’ and quoted Victorian poet Matthew Arnold – ‘Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.’

Let’s test the ‘framework’ against what Gowers called ‘this golden rule.’

First, different things are expected of different grades of civil servant. Fair enough. I would expect more of Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service (salary £200,000 ) than an administrative assistant (otherwise known as a ‘Level 1 AA,’  starting salary £12,000).

Let’s take the lowest salary level. Up to fifty-one separate behaviours are expected of an administrative assistant including:

  • Learn new procedures, seek to exploit new technologies and help colleagues to do the same
  • Make and record effective decisions following the appropriate decision making criteria, framework or guidance [I think it means decision-making]
  • React constructively to developmental feedback and make changes as a result
  • Understand the relevant terms and conditions, including deliverables of relevant contracts
  • 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
  • Remain focused on delivery
  • Participate in quality assurance of products or services.

Even if something sensible lurks behind each of these requirements, this is no more than bureaucratic jargon – management-speak..

In case people don’t get the point (quite likely given some of the language), each behaviour is accompanied by an example of opposite, ineffective behaviour. So not only should civil servants ‘remain focused on delivery,’ they should not ‘be easily discouraged or distracted.’

And up to fifty-one behaviours? On top of whatever technical requirements the job has? What a wonderful industry of training and appraisal beckons for ‘human resources’ to develop, implement, monitor and review.

If this weren’t enough, the fifty-one behaviours are grouped into ten competencies, including ‘collaborating and partnering,’ ‘building capability for all,’ and ‘delivering at pace.’ The competences are then grouped into three ‘Clusters’ – setting direction, engaging people, and delivering results.

The framework places a similar but obviously more onerous range of requirements on each of the five salary grades above ‘Level 1.’

Among the choice language to explain all this are the following gems:

  • Competencies are intended to be discrete and cumulative
  • For all staff, [seeing the big picture] is about focusing your contribution on the activities which will meet Civil Service goals and deliver the greatest value
  • [Senior staff] will aim to maximise return while minimising risk and balancing social, political, financial, economic and environmental considerations to provide sustainable outcomes
  • [Leading and communicating is] about supporting principles of fairness of opportunity for all and a dedication to a diverse range of citizens
  • For all staff [building capability is] being open to learning, about keeping one’s own knowledge and skill set current and evolving
  • People who [deliver value for money] well base their decisions on evidenced information.

Inevitably, the framework is linked to the civil service’s ‘performance management system.’ I warned against performance management when I wrote about the 2012 Civil service reform plan. The competency framework does not lessen my concerns.

I hope what I write speaks for itself. In case it doesn’t I’ll spell it out: the competency framework is badly expressed and represents a wrong approach to managing the civil service.

In an epilogue to The Complete Plain Words, Sir Ernest Gowers quoted the 16th century English scholar Roger Ascham

He that will write well in any tongue, must follow this counsel of Aristotle, to speak as the common people do, to think as wise men do; and so should every man understand him, and the judgment of wise men allow him.

It’s a lesson ‘Civil Service Human Resources’ and their masters seem not to have learned.

My thanks to the excellent Dragon Fairy on Twitter who alerted me to this document.


If you’re what the GovLoop web site calls a ‘govvie’ (work it out) you could do worse than dip into their web site occasionally for a piece of cross-cultural enlightenment.

They’re an American outfit – but they let other folks on – with the aim

to inspire public sector professionals to better service by acting as the knowledge network for government.

A post called Why Are Many Government Officials Such Bad Leaders? by one of their 50,000+ members called Paul Wolf popped up yesterday. I was alerted to it by a tweet from Australian e-government (and much else) guru @craigthomler (such is the power of the web – Washington USA to Canberra Australia to Aberdeen Scotland in less than 24 hours).

The title of Wolf’s post tells you what it’s about. If you’re not familiar with American usage you needed to know that over there a ‘government official’ means an elected politician not an employee as it does in the UK.

But in terms of learning lessons, that’s OK since the American system of government means their politicians (or many of them) are much more hands-on than their UK cousins and in many respects act more like a CEO as far as federal, state and local government employees are concerned.

Wolf’s article compares what a private sector manager at a DuPont plant and an elected official, the governor of New York State, say about leadership.

Leader No. 1 says

  • as a leader you don’t and shouldn’t make all decisions
  • developing people by teaching them to make choices rather than just telling them what to do is critical for an organisation
  • be clear on expectations and provide people feedback on how they’re doing
  • give people flexibility to figure out the best way to achieve the results sought.

Leader No. 2

  • ‘is unbelievably involved in almost everything. On one level, it’s very impressive because he’s a machine in the way he works. But it’s also completely paralysing and debilitating because [you] can’t go to the bathroom without him giving the go-ahead’
  • assumes everything people does is wrong.

Can you guess which is which?

One of Wolf’s readers comments

I have to say I admire [Leader No. 2]…I saw close up the results he left behind. They were actually very impressive. He had been a no nonsense leader who did not accept excuses for substandard results. He had overturned a great many apple carts, exposing the rotten fruit that had been hidden, and broke more than a few rice bowls in the process…Most of the staff did not particularly like him and let us know that as soon as we took over. He wasn’t there to be liked.  He was there to get results, which he did…If you want an old fashioned kick ass, take names and get results actual leader who will leave [the organisation] better than he found it, stick with [Leader No. 2].

‘Old fashioned kick ass.’ Don’t you love it?

Well, if you haven’t guessed already or you have and want to read more, you’ll have to get on over to GovLoop. Wolf is asking for people’s views on what he says, so you can tell him how much better things are in the UK…maybe.


I expressed scepticism recently about the UK government’s civil service reforms.  I mentioned that the name of the new(ish) head of the civil service, Sir Robert Kerslake, was not surprisingly associated with them.  New brooms always like to sweep clean.

Now I see Sir Bob is associated, again not unreasonably, with the UK Civil Service Awards 2012.

Only trouble, Sir Bob, is that staff awards are rarely a good idea.

I know if you happened to see this and could be bothered to respond (although why should you?) you’d give me all the reasons why I’m wrong.

Trouble is, I’ve heard them all before and I’m still not convinced.

You can find out why in my post last year on “And the winner is…” – are awards ceremonies a waste of time?

I gave many reasons why these sorts of things are not a good idea but perhaps most fundamental was my conclusion that

The big problem with these awards is [that]…an organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.

Let’s just have a look at these current awards to see how they match up.

The first thing to say is that the government/civil service senior management have such confidence in their own staff that they’ve outsourced the whole awards process to a company called Dods, ‘a political information, publishing, events and communications business operating in both the UK and Europe.’

Moreover, it won’t cost you or me a penny as ‘All costs of running the event will be covered by Dods…through advertising and sponsorship from outside the Civil Service’ (Civil Service Awards FAQ).

You can call that canny or you can call it cheap.

The awards web site shows they are run in association with consultants Ernst & Young and a company called Huawei (‘a leading global ICT solutions provider’).  Other companies sponsor individual awards.  It is of course conceivable that some of them may be interested in getting business from the government.  Curiously, they are also run ‘in partnership’ with the National Audit Office, i.e. another bit of the civil service.  Whether there is a transfer of money from NAO to help fund the awards is not clear.

There are thirteen categories of awards, for both teams and individuals.  It would be tedious to plod through all of them but let’s just say most of them are seen in one guise or another in most public sector awards competitions including – operational excellence, change management, achieving better for less, and professional (professional what?) of the year.  Strangely this last category is the only one not open to nominees in the Senior Civil Service.

Each category, of course, has criteria attached to it.  Here are some of them.  You may notice some old friends from the textbook of management jargon

  • Strong and successful communication has been delivered in an innovative way and successfully engaged customers
  • Best practice application of expert project management skills and techniques
  • Evidence of sustainability, transparency and control in procurement practice
  • Improving results by placing robust evidence and analysis at the heart of the decision–making process
  • Engaging people and developing their own and others capabilities.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the whole process ‘engages’ civil servants this year.

The Office for National Statistics says there were 498,000 civil servants in 2011.  According to the awards web site, they attract ‘upwards of 800 nominations every year.’  OK, some are for teams and some for individuals.  But that’s one nomination for every 622 civil servants.

Hardly a ringing endorsement is it?

But don’t worry.  There’s an awards ceremony in November at which some guest minister (it was the prime minister last year), Sir Bob, other senior civil servants, the sponsors and some of the finalists will feel good about it all.


I haven’t seen much coverage of the UK government’s Civil Service Reform Plan in the media these last couple of days (it was published yesterday).  It seems to have got lost amidst much more interesting stuff like Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assenge suddenly finding he has a deep affinity with Ecuador and some team winning a football match.

The plan comes from Cabinet Minister Francis Maude, who seems a decent sort of chap – mostly, notwithstanding the occasional clanger about using domestic garages for the storage of UK petroleum reserves, and civil service head Sir Robert Kerslake, who’s ex-local government.  So that’s OK isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

What’s it all about?  In his foreword, in big letters and right at the beginning so it must be uppermost in his mind, Maude says

Some months back I visited a large HMRC operation near Newcastle. The work staff were doing there was neither highly paid nor glamorous, but nonetheless was really important. They had committed to driving up their productivity and performance through the adoption of lean continuous improvement. This is a very demanding methodology, and requires the complete commitment of staff to a rigorous daily collective self-evaluation and to constantly searching for ways to do things better and quicker.

So there you go.  It’s about ‘lean continuous improvement,’ a phrase that suggests he or those advising him haven’t quite grasped the true meaning of how to improve organisations, but we’ll let that go.

Here’s what a word cloud of the text says it’s about, if you believe how often people use words tells you what they really mean (click the cloud to see a larger version)

Apart from obvious words like ‘Government,’ ‘Civil Service’ and so on, you’ll see lots of references to ‘policy…delivery…change…performance’  and other stalwarts of management-speak.  But where are ‘lean’ and ‘continuous improvement’?  Nowhere, although just tucked away towards the top left you’ll see the innocuous ‘improve.’

No doubt interested parties – trade unions, Taxpayers’ Alliance et al – will say what they think about all the other issues the proposals raise.  But I want to concentrate on one fundamental point related to the issue of improvement.

Chapter 5 of the plan is about

Creating a modern employment offer [sic] for staff that encourages and rewards a productive, professional and engaged workforce.

Action 17 says this will include

Regular and rigorous performance appraisal for all staff, recognising good performance and taking action where performance is poor

and (pp.28-29)

 an…appraisal system which will identify the top 25% and the bottom 10%. The bottom 10% will need to undertake performance monitoring and improvement planning… For all staff that remain bottom performers without improvement and are still not meeting the required standards, a decision will quickly be taken over whether they should be exited from the organization.

So it took a while to get there but here you have it – the bottom 10% incapable of improving will be ‘exited.’

Dress it up how you will this is no more than the hard-nosed, kick-arse school of American management espoused by the likes of Jack Welch, erstwhile boss of General Electric.  That was his style – identify the bottom 10% each year and sack them.

There are fundamental objections to this approach anyhow, but even more so if you say you believe in ‘lean continuous improvement.’   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.

There’s also the little matter of what you might call the arithmetic fallacy.  Let’s say you can objectively identify that ‘bottom’ 10%.  They then fall into the danger zone.  But consider the appraisal scores of two teams, each of twenty staff

Team member

Team A

Team B

No. 1

98%

83%

No. 2

98%

80%

No. 3

97%

74%

No. 4

97%

70%

No. 5

97%

65%

No. 6

94%

62%

No. 7

91%

55%

No. 8

90%

50%

No. 9

90%

49%

No. 10

90%

47%

No. 11

89%

44%

No. 12

89%

39%

No. 13

88%

37%

No. 14

87%

33%

No. 15

86%

39%

No. 16

86%

25%

No. 17

86%

22%

No. 18

85%

18%

No. 19

84%

17%

No. 20

84%

11%

All members of Team B are ‘worse’ than any member of Team A yet under the Maude-Kerslake proposal Nos. 19 and 20 in both teams will be subject to ‘performance monitoring and improvement planning’ and if they don’t improve will be out on their lugs.

Makes sense doesn’t it?

I may return to other aspects of this wonderful document