Tuesday 7 January 2020 6:09 am

Want to improve the civil service? Get rid of poor performers and hire some fresh talent

Charlotte Pickles is director of the think tank Reform

Dominic Cummings has, once again, taken aim at the establishment — this time the civil service.

In an unorthodox job advert last week, he declared his intentions to hire “an unusual set of people” to revolutionise government. 

Predictably, retired grandees of the profession are up in arms.

Whenever anyone calls for Whitehall reform — and it should tell us something that this happens every few years — it is combined with the obligatory “there are many brilliant people in the civil service” line. That, in fact, is the first line of Cummings’ blog.

Having worked as an adviser to the  work and pensions secretary during the coalition government, I agree. I also know that believing this is not contradictory to acknowledging that there are too many mediocre or poor civil servants. 

But while I welcome Cummings’ plan, a Downing Street unit of data scientists and “misfits” won’t be enough. A more radical shake-up is needed — one that stretches beyond the doors of Number 10.

A Whitehall fit to meet the challenges of the coming decades must be less hierarchical, less bureaucratic, and more diverse. That means hiring new talent. But it also means getting rid of poor performers.

Most people will recognise that Whitehall has a shortage of the specific technical skills that Cummings identifies — computer scientists, data analysts, mathematicians. Technology is advancing at a pace that is far outstripping the government’s ability to manage it. There’ll be no opposition to rectifying that, though it will require an honest conversation about pay given the salaries that these skills can command in the private sector.

Just as important is his more controversial clarion call for cognitive diversity. Groupthink leads to failure; just look at the 2008 financial crash. Research has repeatedly shown that diversity — of experience and perspective — is a key ingredient of high performing teams. Yet the civil service is largely homogeneous. 

A key observation from my time in government was the tendency to overlook potential unintended consequences of policy changes. It was a failure in critical thinking, and a classic symptom of groupthink.

Encouragingly, attempts are being made to open up the fast stream to people from less privileged backgrounds, but it’s not enough. These are the future civil service leaders, and for the most part they are identikit models of each other. 

Cummings is right — a top Russell Group degree should not be the litmus test for Whitehall success. More maverick thinkers across the board would make a big difference, but to attract and retain them the old-school culture will need to change. You can’t break groupthink if, once hired, you force people to conform to a uniform model of a “good” civil servant or expect them to work through layer-upon-layer of hierarchy.

The real challenge, however, is clearing out the poor performers. That’s the uncomfortable part of the conversation, the part that triggers those grandees. But failure to grasp this will make it harder to retain the high performers — who wants to work with incompetent or unmotivated colleagues? — and therefore more difficult to deliver the reforms the country needs.

Let’s be clear: when a procurement fails, an IT programme goes wrong, or a policy triggers unintentional issues, much of the fault lies with civil servants. A commercial, or digital, or policy official is paid to do that specific job. To bastardise a phrase, ministers decide, civil servants devise.

This, then, will be the true test of the new Prime Minister’s mettle. That infamous “Rolls Royce” civil service will be essential if Boris Johnson is to succeed in delivering both Brexit and his ambitious reform agenda. 

Whitehall is ripe for a radical shake-up. The question is, can Cummings simultaneously deliver a revolution and keep the show on the road? For the sake of the country’s future prosperity, I hope that he can.

Main image credit: Getty

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