Civil service leaders under fire

Government figures revealed under the Freedom of Information Act have unveiled startling disparities in how senior civil servants think their leaders are performing.

The internal survey of senior civil servants, obtained by the Institute of Public Policy Research, questioned them on subjects such as the effectiveness of their leaders, performance appraisal and how long they planned to stay in their departments.

The government body that featured most consistently in the most positive responses was the Land Registry, which deals with home ownership across the UK. The department that fell into the bottom three places more often than all the other departments was the Office for Government Commerce. Shortly behind was the Department of Trade and Industry.

When the senior civil servants were asked whether or not civil service leaders provided effective leadership, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – formerly the fiefdom of mallet-wielding John Prescott – came last with only 36%. The top scoring body was the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which recorded an 88% approval rating.

Angela O’Connor, HR director at the CPS, put this down to the high visibility of the CPS’ leaders, including chief executive Richard Foster and director of public prosecutions (DPP) Ken Macdonald. They regularly get out and about in the country and meet their staff. And there doesn’t seem to have been a croquet mallet in sight.

“They go on roadshows around the country talking to staff. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your methods of communication are, what staff want is face-to-face communication,” O’Connor said.

Straight talking

Macdonald is also a very direct man who is not afraid to share his opinions if things are going wrong. O’Connor believes this has a really positive effect.

“He is one of the most straight-talking people I have worked with, and sometimes that is uncomfortable. But he tells people what he expects from the organisation and from them, and they respect that,” she said.

This results in timely decisions being made, and gets rid of procrastination that could make the CPS, or any Whitehall body, grind to a halt.

It also means an environment where people are willing to face up to shortcomings and work out how to get over them, O’Connor said. “For example, we still have a lot to do around performance management – that’s an area where we have a long way to go,” she admitted.

But the CPS is not alone. Probably the most damning finding of the survey was that fewer than one-quarter of senior civil servants believe poor performance is dealt with effectively in Whitehall departments.

Only officials in the Treasury scored more than one in four (32%) when asked whether poor performance is dealt with effectively in their departments. And only the Department for Constitutional Affairs scored higher than one in three (with 44%) when questioned about the efficiency of their performance appraisal systems.

Culture change

Doug Crawford, head of employee engagement at HR consultancy Chiumento, said that all too often, performance management was regarded as a mechanistic process, and was divorced from wider culture change in organisations.

“Paperwork and process never inspired anyone to do better – this is a fundamental misconception,” he said. “If you adopt [a performance management process] without understanding what is important to staff and tap into that, then you are not likely to get the performance you are looking for.”

This means close scrutiny of managers to make sure they were equipped to manage their staff, Crawford added.

“The biggest single measure of a manager’s performance should be how well they create a motivating and engaging climate for their team – that’s what they should primarily be held accountable for,” he said.

The Cabinet Office said that since this survey was commissioned there had been “a substantial amount of investment in improving leadership capacity in the Civil Service”.

It is certainly one area Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell has attacked with vigour. There is a new leadership framework for Whitehall, as well as a new Civil Service Code, which tells staff just how they are expected to behave.

But if this survey is anything to go by, then some areas of Whitehall will need considerably more than a croquet mallet to bash the top brass into shape.

For more on good performance management, click here

How does Sir Gus think his first six months have gone?

For more on the Civil Service Code, click here

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