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.

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A Tweet brought me a link today to the HR Zone web site and an article called Does management by metrics work?  It begins

On the frame of my kitchen door are marks of the heights of my children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years…

Unfortunately I can’t tell you how it goes on.  It’s described as a blog post.  But the web site concerned only lets you read its blogs if you register (without cost, to be fair) and I don’t like that principle.

So I don’t know what author John Pope thinks.

But since the HR Zone is about, er HR, and since I know what I think, I’ll finish his article for him.  And you don’t have to register to have the benefit of my views.

On the frame of John Pope’s kitchen door are marks of the heights of his children, and now grandchildren, with names and dates written down over the course of years.

How he uses this information I don’t know.  But like I guess most families we did the same.

  • It was fun for our three girls
  • We all shared a sense of pride in seeing how fast they were growing up
  • It was very visible – we could all see it all the time
  • It was an economical use of resources – no computer or software needed, not even a book to record the data in, just a pencil and a wall (and a tape measure if you wanted to make checking the height into a pain-free arithmetic lesson).

What we didn’t do was

  • Use the information as a measure of each daughter’s performance in growing, which at least we as parents knew was due to a whole range of factors entirely outside their control
  • Punish them if they didn’t grow between measurements – “You’ve only grown 2 cm in the last quarter Sophie.  No pet guinea pig until you do much better”
  • Set up a database on our home computer to analyse progress
  • Set them growth targets
  • Make the exercise competitive – “Your sister’s grown 4cm in the last six months when you’ve only grown 2.  If you don’t catch up she’ll get your sweeties”
  • Even less did we dispose of any daughter who wasn’t growing for a while by ‘letting them go’, offering them for fostering or adoption.

Yet these are the things, in effect, that many organisations do who’ve adopted the performance management approach to their staff.

You know it won’t work with your children, why would it work with your employees?

[Since I don’t like blogs that want you to register before you can read them I’m – exceptionally – not including a link to the HR Zone.  But you can doubtless find it if you want.]


Eleven minutes to spare?  Check out this cartoon version of a talk about motivation given by Dan Pink to the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) in London.  It’s one of a great series of similar videos RSAanimates produces.

My 30 second version?

Pay people enough money to take the issue of money off the table.  Then, three factors lead to better performance (and personal satisfaction)

  • autonomy – our desire to be self-directed
  • mastery – our urge to get better at doing things
  • purpose – the way for organisations to get better talent.

How many of the micro-managed performance management systems strangling the public sector understand that?  How many annual appraisals use it as a starting point for discussion about how people are doing?

He doesn’t know it but Deming fan Gordon Hall alerted me to this through one of his e-mails to the various networks he encourages and sustains.