UK ‘breaking open’ civil service recruitment, says chief exec

By on 18/04/2019 | Updated on 06/08/2019
John Manzoni, chief executive of the UK Civil Service, Cabinet Office, UK.

The UK civil service’s ‘ridiculously structured’ approach to recruitment has held it back, chief executive John Manzoni said last week: its new hiring process should bring in people with broader skills, a collaborative approach – and addresses outside London. Matt Ross reports

The UK civil service is “breaking open” recruitment with a reformed approach to job applications, UK civil service chief executive John Manzoni said last week, replacing its “ridiculously structured, pro forma process” with a more flexible, broader system of ‘success profiles’.

Speaking at an event hosted by think tank Reform, Manzoni noted that the previous recruitment process required applicants to demonstrate that they possessed a specific set of ‘competencies’ – but the system took little account of key factors such as people’s track records, and tightly constrained recruiters’ freedom of manoeuvre. “All you had to do was learn how to write competencies,” he commented.

Manzoni also raised concerns over the way that senior officials are appointed, via a system of panels chaired by civil service commissioners. “It depersonalises; it puts the accountability for that decision somewhere else, if you’re not careful,” he said. “And I’ve been very surprised that at really quite senior levels, people aren’t as attentive as they should be about the hiring of the right people”.

Hiring for success

The solution was to introduce ‘success profiles’ alongside the competencies, covering applicants’ track record, technical ability, behaviours and values. “For the leaders of the future, this means people who are competent beyond their immediate profession, naturally collaborative, and used to working across boundaries,” he said.

In answer to a question from Global Government Forum, Manzoni said that the new system brings civil service recruitment more in line with practice in the private sector, where he worked for decades before joining the civil service. “I want to talk to you, and to people who’ve worked with you,” he commented. “I want to look at your track record, get some references… then sit down in front of you and have a chat, and if I like you I’ll hire you.”

“The success profiles give us the opportunity to do all that, because it involves values, it involves behaviours, it involves track record, it involves references,” he said. “They’re being used in 50-70% of hiring now, and the dimensions other than competencies are beginning to be increasingly used, which is really good.”

“I don’t think the system quite realised how important that change is,” he added. “I’m not sure they do still!”

‘Beg for forgiveness, not for permission’

Manzoni hopes the recruitment reforms will help address “a fundamental change we need to make”, creating a civil service with the skills, experience and confidence to make key decisions around delivery.

“We teach young civil servants to ask questions upwards in our submissions” to ministers, he argued. “In the policy space, the civil service cannot make decisions: it has to ask questions of the politicians. The problem is that in the delivery space, you don’t look upwards; you can’t make decisions looking upwards. So you have to have that experience and judgement to make decisions.

“And the civil service has allowed itself, by virtue of atrophying all of those skills of delivery and implementation, to conflate the need to ask questions upwards on policy with the need to ask questions upwards on everything.”

Out of London; into hubs

The civil service chief executive – who oversees civil service reform and the professional ‘functions’, working with cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill – also outlined plans to move 48,000 civil servants into 12 ‘hub’ buildings, bringing together officials from a range of departments. Two hubs in the London area already house 8,000 officials, he said, providing the technology to support flexible working and better career development opportunities.

Modern offices and better IT, he said, cut costs while improving staff satisfaction levels. A recent Home Office outfitting was followed by a 4% improvement in officials saying they have the tools to do their jobs, said Manzoni, whilst the Defence Infrastructure Organisation has cut its office footprint by half and reduced staff travel by 20%.

The hubs network – expected to grow soon with a new set of location announcements – is also intended to help shift senior civil service roles out of London. The delayed spending round, said Manzoni, will include “quite a big move” to support this agenda, and departments will be tasked with reducing the proportion of senior officials based in the capital and its surroundings.

“We’re actually going to set targets by department,” he said. “These are long-term goals, but in the next few years: targets by department for senior civil servants outside of London.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.


  1. Hemant Desai says:

    Those of us in the Civil Service have suffered and suggested a different way for years and this is welcomed.
    However, it is still unlikely to address discrimination: especially relating to ageism. This is institutionalised.
    In addition, recruiters have, in my view, abused, the form asking about backgrounds etc, to fill and meet quotas, in doing so turning down candidates clearly better than others who were appointed to meet quotas.

    Also, as recruiters tend to promote in their own image, how is this bias going to be tackled in order for fair play to be seen to be carried out?

    Are Manzoni and Sedwill, over focussed on austerity and cutting costs by stating a 4% improvement in staff satisfaction surveys, while ignoring and not publicising surveys showing disaffection and loss of vital experience, especially in technical and scientific areas due to closure of sites?

    In my case, improving technologies is helpful, but I need to make contacts for collaborations, globally and in UK, this requires travel. But I can save enormous amount of time by working from home and not commuting. This requires trust from managers, I am not convinced the senior civil servants are sufficiently trusting to achieve this.

    Nevertheless, I am glad that the process of recruitment is being changed as I had lost hope that those promoted by playing the competency game ( often lying as no checks were carried about accuracy of what was written) would change the system.

  2. Philip Dixon says:

    Good comment, Hemant.
    However, I don’t think the recruitment reform has gone far enough. ‘Behaviours’ is just another name for ‘Competencies’. For example, ‘Collaborating and Partnering’ has now become ‘Working Together’. I would score that as ‘1’ in terms of changing and improving.
    A greater focus on skills and experience is to be welcomed.

  3. Kevin Corcoran says:

    One year on and nothing has changed. The best talent is being lost at source because “the computer says no”.

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