Comment Blog 1 May, 2024

High-performance in Whitehall – the (Policy) Director’s cut 

Joe Hill
Policy Director

This article was published to mark the launch of Reform's new report Making the grade: prioritising performance in Whitehall, which you can read here. 

The work of civil servants in Whitehall has a huge impact on the country. We launched the Reimagining Whitehall workstream in 2022 to investigate why the system itself tends to underperform. One of the clearest causes is a lack of focus on workforce performance, the people who make up the institutions of Whitehall. 

In our report out today, we pull back the curtains on how talent and performance is managed in Whitehall, to reveal an HR system which struggles to get exceptional talent in from the private sector, fails to make sure talent always rises to the top, and shuffles repeat poor-performers between teams and departments without ever addressing the root causes. 

Through our survey of 771 civil servants in partnership with Civil Service World, and data obtained through FOI from sixteen different Whitehall departments, we’ve created a new repository of information and insight. Sadly, we couldn’t use it all in the final report, so here are three great insights which didn’t quite make the cut. 

1. Breaking open the ‘closed shop’ of civil service recruitment. 

An essential part of Whitehall reform is that the traditional ‘jobs for life’ model of the civil service should be opened-up to talent from outside of government. Several times the Government has committed to advertising more vacancies externally, particularly those in the Senior Civil Service.  

Responses to our FOI requests showed that external recruitment is far from universal – particularly in policy-making departments which don’t have large frontline operations.  

Underlying these low levels of external recruitment is the tension in Whitehall’s workforce policy – it’s hard to bring in more recruits from the private sector if you’re also trying to reduce the size of the workforce by 66,000 jobs, to return to 2019 staff numbers. Unless, of course, you are managing out people who are repeatedly underperforming to create space to recruit more talented people – something we argue for in the paper. 

“The percentage of departmental roles advertised externally in the most recent year for which you have records.” 

(Note: The percentages from CO, DCMS, DfT and MoJ are for 1 January 2023 to 31 December 2023. DfE’ percentage is for February 2023 to January 2024. DESNZ’s percentage is for 1 July 2023 to 29 February 2024. HMT’s percentage is for 19 February 2023 to 19 February 2024.) 

2. How exceptional is exceptional talent? 

In the paper, we use the Charter Institute of Personnel and Development’s definition of talent, as “individuals who can make a significant difference to organisational performance”, and Tyler Cowen & Daniel Gross’ analysis of “talent with a creative spark” which can “generate new ideas, start new institutions, develop new methods for executing on known products, lead intellectual or charitable movements, or inspire others by their very presence, leadership and charisma”. 

That will look different in different organisations, and high-performing organisations will certainly have a greater density of talent. But is it really plausible that at least 35 per cent of all Senior Civil Servants in the Cabinet Office are “exceeding”? 

This is particularly remarkable when the Cabinet Office’s own ‘guided distribution’ suggests only 25 per cent of SCS should be rated as exceeding – and defines ‘exceeding’ as “this person is delivering exceptional performance, going above and beyond in almost all their objectives, both in the ‘what’ and in the ‘how’”. 

“The percentage of departmental employees, broken down by grade, rated against each of these performance management ratings in the most recent year for which you have records.”  

3. How to spot exceptional people within the civil service? 

Interviewees cited two different talent schemes as the destination for exceptional talent in Whitehall: The Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) for officials at Grade and Grade 6, and the Senior Leaders Scheme for the first grade in the Senior Civil Service (SCS1). Other schemes do exist, but these were most frequently raised. Seeing the figures in the public domain, it’s remarkable how large the cohorts are – given they are aimed at future leaders of the civil service, jobs which number in the dozens or low hundreds, not several hundred per year.  

The programmes are based on application, with an acceptance rate of 16 per cent for the FLS and 32 per cent for the SLS. That may seem fairly competitive, but it’s a much higher acceptance rate than, for example, the Fast Stream, which accepted 2.8 per cent of candidates across all schemes in 2022-23.  

In the paper we argue that the government should have smaller and much more elite talent cohorts than this, with more intensive and long-lasting support for successful applicants, and that selection should be based on performance appraisals rather than a separate application process.  

“The total number of applications and acceptances to the Future Leaders Scheme and Senior Leaders Scheme since 2015-16 (or the earliest data you hold if it is from a later year).”