Capability-based pay to be introduced under UK civil service reform plans

By on 15/06/2021
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove visits Laurieston Jobcentre in Glasgow. As part of the reforms launched today, the government wants to move 22,000 civil servants out of London. Credit: Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street/Flickr

All senior appointments to the UK civil service will be open to public competition and capability-based pay will be introduced, under the government’s new reform programme announced today.

Alongside transforming the recruitment and management of senior civil servants (SCS), the Declaration on Government Reform outlines a host of other actions – including relocating 22,000 civil service roles outside of London by 2030, improving training, and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of ministers and officials.

Michael Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, stressed the collaborative approach to the reforms. “On some past occasions, it has been regrettable that reform overall was seen as something driven by politicians, against the mulish opposition of bureaucrats,” he said. “The declaration published today is the fruit of discussion between ministers and officials.”

This was echoed by cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Simon Case. “As we look forward now to renewal and recovery, this reform programme created by ministers and officials ensures that we will grip the challenges and opportunities together, as one government team,” he said.

This messaging was welcomed by Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union. “What is to be welcomed is the tone of collaboration and recognition of the incredible strengths of our civil service, as well as the bedrocks of impartiality and integrity which these strengths are built on,” he said.

The strategy focuses on reform in three areas: people (including recruitment, deployment, performance management and incentives); performance (“modernising the operation of government”, with a focus on digital); and partnership (“strengthening the bond between ministers and officials, always operating as one team from policy through to delivery”).

Senior recruitment and performance management

Under the “people” pillar, the declaration commits to improving how people are recruited into – and managed out of – government.

As part of efforts to attract a broader range of people into the civil service, all senior appointments will be open to public competition “by default” and advertised “in such a way as to ensure the widest possible pool of applicants”, the document notes.

“We will ensure that ministers have visibility of SCS appointments in the departments they lead, and provide the prime minister and cabinet secretary with the broadest possible choice of new permanent secretaries and directors general,” it adds.

Penman raised concerns about this, however. “Ministerial involvement in selection not only threatens the impartiality of the civil service, but will inevitably lead to greater turnover as successive ministers seek to build their own team around them, the very opposite of what they say they are trying to achieve,” he said.

Elsewhere, performance management of senior officials will also be “overhauled”. Capability-based pay will be implemented, starting with the SCS, alongside a new performance management framework “with targets to ensure visibility over delivery”.

Permanent secretaries also face a new performance management framework linked to departmental performance. They will be assessed “more transparently”, the document says, with bonuses linked to meeting targets. Separately, the government noted that the prime minister and cabinet secretary will oversee the performance of permanent secretaries.

Furthermore, the document notes it “intervene to help improve performance in areas of weakness”. But, it also says: “We will manage out those whose performance consistently falls below the level the public have a right to expect.”

Professional pathways

Alongside promoting more movement of civil servants between the four administrations in the UK, the strategy commits to developing new routes into the civil service from other sectors including industry, academia and the third sector. This includes for professionals who would like more short-term roles, alongside those who want to build careers in the service.

There is also a commitment to training civil servants and ministers, including online provision and a new physical campus. This will cover traditional subjects – such as drafting advice, and insights into how Parliament works – alongside expertise in areas such as digital, data and project management. There will also be a mandatory induction package and data training for the SCS.

Relocation is also on the agenda.  The government wants to move 22,000 civil service roles outside of London by 2030, including 50% of SCS positions. The declaration says that the government wants to expand away from centres where it already has a footprint to places including Darlington, Stoke, Leeds, East Kilbride, Glasgow and Loughborough. “Ministers will similarly spend more time out of London, working with teams wherever they are based,” the document notes.

Delivery and accountability

The strategy seeks to promote departmental accountability, for example by ensuring departments have Outcome Delivery Plans that show their priorities and targets so delivery “can be judged”.

As part of this, every department will have a delivery board “with non-executive director involvement to monitor performance”. Furthermore, a new Evaluation Task Force will be established to “act as an in-house scrutineer not just of value for money in programmes but effectiveness against published ambitions”.

The third “partnership” strand of the strategy focuses on the relationship between ministers and officials.

It includes an ambition to create more opportunities for ministers and officials to collaborate and refine policy. Based on experiences from Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, the document notes that “the best decisions are made when both ministers and officials contribute to discussions in mixed forums”.

But the reform plan also wants to bring “greater clarity to the roles, responsibilities and accountability of ministers and senior officials when taking decisions”. This includes considering how the two roles should work together, and how leaders “should be held to account for their decisions in different contexts”.

As part of the actions, the government will review the models of accountability. This review will look at international best practice and lessons from the pandemic, the document says.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected]

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