Kevin White, Former Director-General Of HR, UK Home Office: Exclusive Interview

By on 13/08/2015 | Updated on 09/03/2016
Kevin White, Former Director-General Of HR, UK Home Office

After 39 years as a UK civil servant, Kevin White has just retired from his post as HR director general. He tells Global Government Forum about his views on performance management, his experience in setting up a central civil service training offer, and why ‘bashing the brand’ is bad for business

What is the role of civil servants? To serve the government of the day, of course – but officials and politicians in the UK have applied their own interpretations to this definition, particularly in regard to the senior ranks. There have been differences in opinion on the process for appointing civil servants; the mechanisms by which they should be held to account; and, perhaps most controversially, their relationship with ministers.

Some champion the tradition that officials should ‘speak truth unto power’ in order to test and challenge weak policies; but Francis Maude, who was minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010-15, tended to emphasise civil servants’ duty to implement ministers’ decisions. Indeed, Maude was shocked last summer when he came across a guidance note that said permanent secretaries should “balance the short-term pressures of politicians against the long-term interests of their departments”.

Others are more comfortable with a complex, nuanced set of relationships. Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory MP and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, told Civil Service World this month that the balancing act set out in the Maude note is “exactly what they have to do! … It is exactly that tension which has created one of the best systems of government in the world.” And Kevin White, who retired from his post as the Home Office’s HR director-general on 10 July, after 39 years in the civil service, instinctively reconciles the two positions. A good civil servant, he says, “will speak truth to power, and good ministers will encourage it – it’s an important part of the role. But as a way of describing our fundamental role – the civil service brand – I think it’s too antagonistic. Why, if you are a government, would you be interested in your senior leaders thinking their distinctive brand was a challenging one?”

Equally, though, White argues that describing civil servants as “just a workforce that follow the requirements of the leadership of the organisation is not the right response to the sense of mission and purpose that you often get in civil service employees, and doesn’t properly account for the fact that civil servants have a relationship with the state as well as the government of the day.”

A lot has changed in the British civil service over the last five years. Since 2010, the workforce has shrunk by a fifth; departments have cut their spending by an average of 9.5%; civil servants have had their terms and conditions cut; government has become more digital; and the handling of major projects has been made more transparent – with Maude pushing through many of these reforms. But while White – who’s been closely involved in the cross-government HR reform agenda – says that the civil service made a “leap forward” over the last five years, he seems to regret that people’s inability to reconcile these different conceptions of the civil service’s role has undermined and weakened programmes of reform.

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Kevin White: “Why, if you are a government, would you be interested in your senior leaders thinking their distinctive brand was a challenging one?”

The importance of definitions

There has not been, White says, “a simple and effective guiding coalition for change across the civil service over these past 5 years, as one might have liked.” He adds that “the best way to make change is to develop a common understanding and a common vision across the whole leadership community” – something which has been “difficult to achieve over the last five years.” There has, he says, been a range of reasons for this lack of consensus. However, “at the heart of it has been an ambiguity about the relationship between civil servants and ministers, or between civil servants and government.”

Going forward, he says, if the government wants to successfully implement further civil service reforms “and build the future of the civil service, we need to find a new expression, a new crystalisation of that relationship.” Asked what the answer is, he says: “I don’t have it. I’m not offering a different version, I’m just saying it’s a task for current leaders, while I’ll happy to be part of it outside [of the civil service].”

Managing performance

Despite what White sees as tensions about the role of senior officials, the HR mandarin counts the fractious, crusading Francis Maude among his most important professional influences. Though he acknowledges that Maude wasn’t popular among civil servants – and himself often expressed publicly how dissatisfied he was with the civil service’s performance – White believes he deserves credit for what he achieved.

“The things Maude’s been trying to do are from my point of view almost always the right things to do,” he says. “They are improving the journey that we’ve all been on for a while: to try to make the civil service a smarter, sharper, more professional place; an organisation that is more technology-driven, and has to be smaller, more flexible, more commercial, less gradist, more open to the external market – more ‘porous’, in Maude’s words.” During Maude’s tenure, White adds, the civil service has “made a big leap forward” because the minister “pushed important things really hard.”

The two did work closely together on some of Maude’s key reforms – including the introduction of a civil service-wide performance management system. In April 2013, the government introduced a system seen by many as a version of ‘forced ranking’, whereby managers were strongly encouraged to rank 10% of their staff as poor performers, 65% as middling and 25% as performing well.

Although many civil servants agreed that performance management across the system needed to be reformed, the forced ranking element of the new approach has been widely criticised by staff and managers as unfair, divisive, and likely to foster staff anxiety, workforce tensions and favouritism. Opponents also argue that the government is using a technique which has been discredited in the private sector, which moved away from forced ranking: the approach has been adopted and subsequently abandoned by big players such as Motorola, Ford, Expedia, Goodyear, Microsoft and GE.

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Opponents argue that the government is using a technique which has been discredited in the private sector.

So was forced ranking really the right answer? “I think it probably was, at first,” replies White, arguing that “moving away from it isn’t quite the same as discrediting it”. The new system was, he says, necessary to achieve a change in culture: the civil service used to have “places where we weren’t managing performance, where there weren’t sensible, robust and honest conversations about individuals’ performance at the end of the year, and managers tended to duck issues: if they had someone that wasn’t performing well, they didn’t tackle it.”

The forced distribution, he adds, “requires people to tackle things they might not have tackled otherwise. I think in big systems, sometimes you need to put in something that guides activity and drives behaviour in order to start a change of culture. So I think introducing a system of that kind probably was a helpful thing to do to focus people on performance management.”

Importantly, though, White portrays the system as a temporary measure designed to jolt civil servants into adopting a more stringent approach to performance management in general. The current forced ranking model, he believes, is only sustainable “for a relatively short period before it begins to get a bit stale and before the emphasis on performance discussions gets trapped into an emphasis on numbers and quotas.” He adds that he “would be surprised if the civil service was still running a system like that in the next three or four years.”

Moving on

Another ambition championed by Maude was to make the civil service a more open and “porous” organisation, and to increase secondments into other sectors. There is a “strong and effective” secondment programme in place, says White. But aren’t many civil servants wary of secondments, fearing they’ll find it difficult to return into a good job in government? The process “isn’t always as good as it should be, he concedes:” secondments can be complicated to organise and end up “a bit scrappy”, leading some to perceive them as “a game of musical chairs”. But he’s clear that “there is no real risk to people of talent, who have confidence in their ability and are looking to shape and drive their careers.”

He admits, though, that secondments are sometimes used “in an equally valid way, for people who are coming to the end of their civil service career, who are doing fine, but are not the future blood of the organisation, and who we would like to find a way of moving into another sector.” White argues that funding such employees to experience a workplace outside the civil service – whether that’s in the commercial, private or third sector – “helps them find their feet.”

“We have both a moral and a legal accountability for them,” he comments. “They’re not bad performers, but they’re not the people that you want in five years time. And they would often be expensive exits. So you can either keep paying their salary, spend your time trying to find a way to discipline them and sacking them for lack of performance – but that’s really hard to do. Or you can – and I’ve done this a number of times in different departments – help them get a secondment, pay their salary for a while, and more often than not, that leaves them with an offer of a role somewhere else because they realise they have skills that are really valued outside. So we do that and that’s a good, decent and humane way of moving on people who the civil service doesn’t really want for the future.” Would these people know the purpose of the secondments in those cases? “Sometimes, yes. We’d have a conversation with them,” White says.

Sometimes, he concludes, “people hear about secondments in those terms and tend to think of them as being a kind of exit out”. But as conceived within the civil service reform programme, he says, they’re “a way of giving people another perspective – and maybe sometimes purer commercial skills than they might get in the civil service.”

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White argues that funding some employees to experience a workplace outside the civil service – whether that’s in the commercial, private or third sector – “helps them find their feet.”

Consolidating training

Another defining reform over the last five years has been the creation of Civil Service Learning (CSL): a central training and development platform run by an external supplier, launched in April 2011. White led the team who drove this change. Fully operational by March 2012, CSL buys generic skills training for the whole civil service, replacing a system under which individual departments bought their own training from a range of different suppliers. The government estimates that this reform saves around £90m a year, thanks to economies of scale and eliminating duplication.

CSL, which replaced the previous in-house civil service training academy – the National School of Government – got off to a slow start, with some departments reluctant to buy into the new policy. White explains that the first stage was “blunt and a bit brutal, because, in order to do it we had to have an awful lot of ‘you cant’s’: ‘You can’t buy something without checking centrally. You have to use that programme rather than something else. If you want something different for your department, you have to agree it with us and we’ll help you design it.’ So it had more of a negative flavour, because of the need to institute some disciplines.” But White is unapologetic about the achievements of CSL, which has laid the basis “for a modern and effective training system”.

The introduction of CSL also coincided with an overall reduction in departmental training budgets, which may have soured departments’ views of the reforms. In retrospect, White says, “it might have been a softer landing for CSL if we had not been taking a lot of money out of the system. But we had to take money out of the system: with the CSL efficiencies, we could maintain investment in training across the system more effectively than we might have been able to otherwise.”

The next phase, he says, will be “making sure that the next expression of Civil Service Learning is seen more by the organisation as a service opportunity rather than a business constraint.” This agenda, he says, is now being taken forward by CSL chief executive Hilary Spencer, who took over from Jerry Arnott last year, and John Manzoni, the new chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office.

Championing transparency

Maude hailed the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which was in power before the general election this May, as the “most transparent and accountable government in the world.” And whilst this may be hyperbole, his government did put out a lot of previously unpublished data – such as the salaries of high-ranking civil servants, and government procurement contracts. Independent ratings of the government’s most expensive major projects are also published regularly, and since 2013 every permanent secretary has had his/her annual objectives published online.

However, with government reluctant to disclose information on whether permanent secretaries are deemed to have made progress on or fulfilled their objectives, the value of publishing them has been questioned. “I guess it’s more a token than a reality,” White says. “I think trying to achieve complete clarity, transparency and accountability by publishing a set of things the leader of each department has agreed with ministers and the centre of government is a good thing to aim for. But in practice, life is very much more complicated.”

These performance management tools, he says, “tend to be a bit like a contract that you negotiate and then put in a drawer and get on with managing the relationship. If you’re negotiating and then buying a service, you spend a lot of energy on a really good contract and then you put it in the drawer and you get ahead with the relationship to make stuff work between the two parties. So you have the comfort that the contract is there but you don’t actually use it for the day-to-day running of the relationship. I guess it’s a bit like that.”

Another dataset the government publishes every year is the Civil Service People Survey (CSPS). It was first run in 2009, and is the largest employee attitude survey in the UK. In 2014, 274,080 people in 101 organisations filled in the questionnaire – a response rate of 60%. The survey asks officials about their job, the working environment and how they perceive their managers.

This has its risks. It provides civil servants with, in White’s words, “a stick to beat the organisation with, and can root people in a past that they are dissatisfied with, rather than help them look to the future.” For these reasons, many senior figures in the civil service would rather the survey was abolished. And at times, White admits, he’s wished for the same.

However, he believes the survey is a “fundamentally a wholesome thing to be doing: I think it is in a rather crude way keeping management honest. Leaders think throughout the year about staff perceptions and reactions to what they do. And that’s not just for the sake of getting a better CSPS number – it’s not quite an end in itself – but [the survey is] a reminder.” The CSPS also “allows you to look at trends, differences between organisations, hot spots – you can identify areas which are doing relatively better than others and compare them over the years.”

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“I worked in many big departments, mostly full of people who are well-motivated, want to serve the public, are focused on doing a good job and do some wonderful things.”

Bashing the brand

Francis Maude and others in government have been critical of the civil service, both openly and, some of them, via anonymous media briefings – and Maude received plenty of criticism himself for permitting those public attacks, which many saw as counterproductive. But whilst White agrees that “a lot of [public criticism] happened in the last five years”, he argues that “there was also briefing and criticism under the previous administration.” In fact, he says, the culture of bashing civil servants publicly goes back to the Blair era in the late 1990s.

Tony Blair, who was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, drove forward a centralised, target-driven approach to public services, with Michael Barber leading his Delivery Unit – a body designed to track the progress of key public sector reforms – from 2001 to 2005. “Because they brought in a strong managerial focus and asked to be measured on targets, which was a bit different from where Margaret Thatcher and John Major were before them, the political debate has become in part a debate about the effectiveness of the delivery of services,” White says. “And the tensions arising from that have meant that it’s become more likely that what the civil service does or doesn’t do is part of the political trading, that political attacking.” Added to that, he says, is the fact that “the [mainstream] media are, generally speaking, not friends of the public sector, and attacking civil servants makes good copy.”

Unfortunately, he says, it’s also very damaging; the practice of continuously attacking officials publicly “is a bit like Ratner.” Gerald Ratner created a jewellery empire in the 1980s, with 1,500 stores in the UK and 1,000 in the US. But during a speech at the Institute of Directors in 1991, he described one of his products as “total crap” – a remark that cost him his business and his job. The company, which had been making profits of £125m a year, plunged £122m into the red and closed hundreds of shops. White’s comparison with the civil service? “If you bash the brand too much then people don’t like it.”

White says he himself has not been criticised in the media by politicians. “I really had a good time in the civil service, and I’ve had good and positive relationships with ministers at all stages,” he says. But he believes something needs to be done to stop anonymous briefings and public criticism of officials, which he describes as “profoundly unhelpful.” Indeed, he adds, the people doing it “know it’s not helpful.” He says: “I worked in many big departments, mostly full of people who are well-motivated, want to serve the public, are focused on doing a good job and do some wonderful things. And to have that all tarnished in the public gaze just by a few casual remarks or a media story is very demotivating for people.”

The UK civil service, with its “integrity and the honesty” is a “real prized asset,” he says; and he warns that a media narrative in which the civil service is constantly criticised risks damaging its status and, ultimately, its quality. The public sector could, he says, get “a bit like public service broadcasting in the States, where it is seen as a second tier good. We need to be really careful with those sorts of things.”

For the civil service to recruit the right people, build its capabilities and keep moving forward, White believes, efforts must be made to maintain it as a “positive brand.” Above all, it’s important to promote it as a “place where people of talent and aspiration will still want to come and work.” Kevin White has spent four decades trying to do just that; his concern, as he retires from one of Whitehall’s top HR jobs, is that a negative public debate only weakens all those working to create a more positive civil service.

See also news:

Outgoing Home Office HR Chief: Attacks On Civil Servants Damage Recruitment

Former UK HR Boss Calls For Civil Service To Recruit Non-graduates

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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