15 May 2012

The head of the UK civil service uses twitter. In a tweet last week he indicated that more was needed to deal with poor performing officials. This responded to reports that Ministers are determined to change the culture of the Civil Service. They say “lazy” civil servants are tolerated because managers do not want to have “difficult conversations” with them.

Plans for tackling performance involve a more rigorous assessment of the 434,000 working in departments, agencies and quangos. This, just a month after the Civil Service introduced a new performance management process, involving ranking of competence.

Senior civil servants, alarmed by a claim by the Paymaster and Minister of the Cabinet Office that the Civil Service could be cut by 70%, have been assured by the Civil Service Head that “…there are absolutely no plans to cut the civil service by either 70 or 90 per cent.”

The Whitehall Watch blog explores poor performance and what the real consequences may be.

“Of the just under half-a-million civil servants, the vast majority are in low ranking jobs doing relatively routine work that does not carry responsibility for a great deal of money. ‘Under-performing’ at these levels can have important, but not exactly disastrous, consequences.”

For the 5,000 in the Senior Civil Service grades the picture is rather different.

“Many of these people are responsible for, or make a big contribution to, important decisions about multi-million or even multi-billion projects and programmes. “Under-performing” at these levels can have dire consequences. The major IT project that get’s the rubber stamp without proper scrutiny and ends up costing 3 or 4 times as much, or not working at all; the un-security-cleared official who gets access to material he shouldn’t; … the defence purchasing decision that turns out to be completely wrong; the failure to ‘speak truth to power’ and tell Ministers a policy is heading for the rocks ….Let’s be clear then losses to the ‘public value’ of tens of billions of pounds can be caused by “the Mandarins” that will dwarf any losses sustained by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary civil servants, a small minority of whom might be under-performing…”

There is also a reverse logic. If senior officials can cause such substantial harm, there must be an argument for ensuring that when they perform well, they are recognised with substantial remuneration.

The blogger suggests that the focus of the new drive to tackle “poor performers” and reduce civil servant numbers “will be directed at the poor bloody infantry.”

In New Zealand, “the poor bloody infantry” is not the only target for efficiency. “Elite” units like the State Services Commission have reorganised with fewer positions. And Ministers have excluded “frontline staff” from reducing staff numbers. An illustration of what’s happening is the restructure of the Department of Corrections announced earlier this month. Reductions there target the “colonels” and “captains”.