Ask the UK civil servant/central government official

I don’t know if this is an interesting topic but thought I might as well put it up here for those potentially curious as I’m due to leave it in a couple of months.

So, background: I work in the British civil service in the Department for Education. I’ve worked here for 10 years and have worked on about 9 assignments in that time. I didn’t intend to go into government, I was just temping around different jobs and worked here as a PA and admin assistant but had worked in enough jobs to have an idea of whether it was somewhere I wanted to be longer term, and whilst there a chance to go permanent came up so I applied and got in. I’ve spent the rest of the time working my way up the ranks and now work in a job that I would describe as project management although it includes a lot more than that.

So if you have any questions about what it’s like to work in central government, or the British government specifically, or to make public policy, I’m happy to help. There are some things I can’t go into but rather than list caveats I’d rather just deal with those questions if they come up. I can talk about past jobs and what I’ve done working here as well as my (frank) opinion about what those jobs were, but I can’t give the opinion of other people (so I can say if I think a policy was a waste of time but saying that everyone who I worked with agreed with me I can’t do).

Hope this is of interest to people. :slight_smile:

If you had the means and no one was watching, would you hang Disco Dave or Tony Blair first from the nearest lamp post?

How many cups of tea do you drink per day?

How close is the service from that of Yes Minister, both the fictional one and the actual service of that time period? Any differences a good thing or not?

You have mentioned earlier that you are gay. How has that effected you? I know government departments can be quite conservative places yet they can be willing to overlook “unfortunate facts” if it suits them.

I worked for the Government a long time ago.
I was an Executive officer (EO).
Do you still use those grades?

How much would I have to pay you to get you to kick Michael Gove very hard in the testicles the next time you see him? Did I mention my wife is a teacher?

Naah, I kid. As someone who has worked for a few quangos, government work is a decent if boring gig.

Blair - Cameron is just not a good prime minister, whereas Blair took us into two completely unnecessary wars and started our slow slide into a security state, as well as ignoring the mandate of the people that he had to make things more socially just and decided that what people actually wanted was more expensive houses.

Generally between three and four. I work at home most of the time so don’t need to use having tea as a break, I just have it when I want it.

I don’t know how now compares to then, as I’ve only worked in government a decade. I have worked for a Minister though and would say that Yes Minister was nothing like reality. Also the idea that civil servants are all classicists straight out of Oxbridge is a complete myth, maybe it was true at one time but it certainly isn’t now. In my experience, if anything, civil servants are so keen to do whatever they’re told by the Minister that they tend not to offer alternatives or say if they don’t think something will work, rather than being diplomatically obstructive.

Absolutely not - indeed, my Department has made it into the Stonewall top 100 list if gay-friendly employers several times. Quite a few senior managers are gay, including my Director General. That said a) my Department is definitely one of the more liberal ones, given the area we deal with (Departments tend to have their own cultures) and b) things have changed very quickly in a short space of time. Other older gay staff members have told me horror stories of people losing their jobs or deliberately and very obviously being held down for promotion because of it. It wasn’t that long ago that being gay disqualified you from holding a security clearance.

There are a few grading systems, my Department does use that one. I’m an SEO.

I’d do it for free, just because of the horrible time the entire public sector (civil servants included) is experiencing under this administration.

I think quangos are a bit of a different kettle of fish, being in a central Department is more interesting because you’re closer to the decision making process and can sometimes be part of it.

how are public servants hired in the UK? Do you have a Public Service Commission that is the main hiring and employment body, or are you direct employees of the Crown? what measures are in place to ensure a non-partisan public service? is there much turn-over when the government changes after an election?

Civil servants are employed mainly in five ways:

  1. Open recruitment - this is how I came in, there was a recruitment drive for people at one grade because the Department needed more staff, I applied and got through the process. After that I then had to apply again for a specific role in the Department, but as I was already working there as a temp that was pretty easy to arrange. The drive was run entirely by my Department, but by virtue of the fact that I have an employment contract with them I am employed by the civil service as a profession.

  2. Secondment - people come from other Departments or parts of the public sector, or occasionally other bodies like charities or even private companies (but that’s rare) to work for a specific length of time or one a set project. So people will come in and do a two year stint before going back to their home Department, or they’ll work on a particular policy and when that phase of development is done they leave. They’re not employed by the civil service and are still employees of their parent organisation.

  3. Direct appointment - pretty rare and generally this only happens for senior roles, such as some of the senior positions in my Department where people came in from outside the civil service because it was viewed that we needed to broaden our management skills and experience base (a decision I view very questionable, I have to say). These people are civil servants.

  4. Political appointments - these are the special advisers that work directly to the Ministers when they come into a Department, and maybe some of their office staff (one Minister had a political appointee as his diary secretary). There are only a handful of these per Department, there are currently less than five in mine out of 3000 employees.

  5. The civil service fast stream - highly qualified graduates can apply for this and if they get onto the programme are then allocated to Departments according to their skills and preferences, where they are placed in high challenge/profile jobs to get them ready for management roles within a few years. Even when there was a recruitment freeze on the fast stream kept recruitment, because if there’s one thing we absolutely need more than anything else it’s managers who are likely to have come straight from university with virtually no life experience.

There is no commission or other organisation that deals specifically with recruitment for civil servants because we’re always appointed by a specific Department (fast streamers are employed initially by the Cabinet Office but after that their home Departments). But, at the same time, I’m an employee of the Secretary of State for Education (not as a person but as a body corporate) who in turn represents the body corporate of the Crown. The easiest way to think about it is to think of the civil service as a professional associational like a legal bar, and then you work for a specific law firm who is your employer (it’s a loose analogy, I’m not trying to give equivalency between law and the civil service).

Our civil service is non-politicised, apart from the small number of special advisers, so there is no turn over between administrations. Indeed one of the strengths of our system is that it’s built to serve whichever government that comes into power equally whilst being accountable to the greater public good (which means we can be beyond political views and desires or point out when they conflict with the public interest, not that it happens that much). Indeed, the civil service code requires us to be neutral and independent, but in reality some of the senior managers can get a bit too attached to the direction of one government and you find a natural change of leaders happens after an election (often they’ll just go and work in another Department where they don’t have a history, no-one who makes it to senior manager level is really all that invested in any one political ideology because you’re so used to seeing them come and go).

The grade system is about to go under another crackpot scheme called ‘Fair and Sustainable’.

This was based upon a so-called ‘job evaluation scheme’ (JES)which pretended to be a scientific assessment of the skills required to carry out a role, however this was severely compromised by the selection of the common factors that are used to decide the level that a job should be placed at. In that JES there is no accounting for work loading, and the skills and knowledge is grossly under weighted - I actually made a protest in front of a huge number of very senior managers, because they were equating my multi-year apprenticeship as being at the same level of skill as a 2 hour job selection aptitude test - and for quite a low level aptitude test at that.Heck, they even made a commitment to bring staff UP to Level 2 education levels, and yet all of my grade start at L3 and go up through to degree level, and yet somehow we are equated in terms of skills and knowledge as the same as these barely literate yokels.

The entire purpose of this was merely to break and equal pay settlement that was won for female colleagues - work of equal value. Its since been extended to ‘construct’ jobs down to a price.

Staff will all be graded into bands, so the EO role will go and the SEO will also go. I expect an SEO would wind up around band 9 whereas an EO could end up as band 4, whilst some have specific roles that may land them higher.

Anyhoo, anything you want to know about recent development in personnel policy - I’m your man or I will know someone who does.

Questions for you.

What do you think of the new Beecroft inspired staff appraisal system? - I think it will lead to a huge number of claims at industrial tribunals - I just can’t see how it can be justifiable to have someone achieve satisfactory in all their assessment criteria and have them sacked in just 8 weeks without recourse to support or appeal.(Yes I know that the first few have been extended to 7 months) How can it be that someone is competent and satisfactory and yet be dismissed?

I look forward to those tribunals - gets me out of my normal job for a while and I like to win against managers who just can’t be bothered to read their own policies - no wonder this rotten government is trying to restrict the rights of workers to access the tribunal service.

Next question -

Has the volume of major reports, green papers and consultations slowed in the last few years? It seems that under the previous administration we were being hit by another set of regulations and recommendations before we had the chance to study the previous set - let alone put any of it into practice.

Next question

What role do you see for IfL? - all I could see of it was that it claimed to be a professional body, however all it actually does is cost teachers & trainers and their employers money to stay registered. Tutor requirements that this body has mooted are such that there is real danger that UK PLC will not be able to produce enough people to teach and train the workforce.Sooner this imposition is dead, the better - and I made sure they know that by putting it in the members survey they have just closed.

Next Question

Under various and numerous reports into Reducing Re offending, huge amounts of money has been spent in attempting to teach offenders, and yet the prison population has risen from around 55k in the 1990’s and is now close to 90k - and the same faces just keep coming back - we are now gathering data on prisoners with 15 or more convictions - its going up alarmingly - when do you think ministers will begin to understand that this spending has been wasted? What do you think they will put in place of failed education?

Next Question

Do you think ministers actually appreciate that the loss of employment especially among the young is almost certainly going to increase the size of the prison population?
Austerity is going to cause social problems for the next twenty years or more as this generation of young adults are bypassed from employment.

How do ministers intend to attract teachers into offender training when they are cutting their wages and their pensions, and increasing their retirement age and also increasing the qualification levels required of those same teachers?

Next Question.

I know of a number of educational practitioners who run their exams in such a way that the qualifications awarded are utterly meaningless - when is your department going to carry out whistle blower led spot checks?

I could go on, but I’d better not, I’ve a strong feeling that you will not find it appropriate to respond fully on some of the points.

From my interaction with civil servants this is a comparatively recent change (by which I mean in the last 20 years or so). Time was, that if you wanted a cozy job in the Civil Service you’d go to Oxford, get your PPE degree (that’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and as long as you weren’t completely hopeless you’d have a job for life. If you got a First and/or had good connections, you’d move up through the ranks at a decent clip. I’ve known several (older) people who joined the CS under such conditions. Frankly I prefer it the way it is now despite the constant fiddling with the system casdave mentions, although YMMV.

I’m sorry to hear it, although not remotely surprised.

They are indeed - quangos are a lot looser in structure and culture, although one gets a lot of interaction with the civil service.

Oh yes please. The aforementioned wife, who teaches at post-secondary level, is sick of getting students with supposedly good A-levels who don’t know even the basics of their subjects.

What differences have you experienced in your work under the Labour and now Tory/Lib Dem coalition?

Hey everyone, sorry to be delinquent on my own thread! Right, some answers:

Aren’t these the same recommendations that are currently being trashed in the media and openly rejected by some cabinet members? You speak as if they’re being implemented but I’m not clear that’s necessarily going to happen. Regardless, I think your question is more about my perceptions of hiring and firing in the civil service. I’ve heard it stated as an article of faith that it’s impossible to sack anyone, and people who are poor performers are never challenged. Like a lot of faith-based assertions this simply isn’t true, as I’ve personally known several people be sacked (both properly and improperly).

Personally I think people talk themselves out of taking any action on poor performance: because “everyone knows” that you can’t do anything about poor performers, no-one tries to take active steps or sanctions when things don’t improve, so you actually do have a situation where action isn’t taken (and when it is it sticks out like a sore thumb). Sadly the HR function of my Department is pretty crap and doesn’t support managers very well when they are treading into what can be a tricky area of employment law, and run of the mill line managers suddenly find themselves accountable for decisions that could be later scrutinised by an employment tribunal. I’m not sure who manages the policy for our HR (kind of a failing in itself, that), but I don’t think they do a good job.

Absolutely. One of the first directives we received was that the flow of paper out into the education system had to stop. A friend of mine worked on a project to review the amount of information that schools legally had to have regard to and it ended up covering about 10 pages of A3 spreadsheet :eek: So there definitely is a desire to scale back what goes to schools generally, as well as change the framework of what schools must know. Under labour guidance was sent to schools constantly, but most of it was non-statutory good practice guidance for their information. Now something can only be called guidance if it’s statutory, in which case schools are informed about it, otherwise it’s just information and is made available to them but not actively promoted. The question “do schools actually need to know this?” is now routinely asked whenever a policy is created or implemented.

It’s not that labour didn’t care about the volume of information that went to schools, and in fairness a lot of the “paper” schools were buried in was the electronic kind as we pared down our communications significantly to just a regular email that had its content controlled tightly, as well as setting up a committee that had to give approval to anything that was being sent to more than a certain number of schools.

It’s a bit too early to tell on the regulation front more generally. The mill of law continues to turn due to the programming method that Parliament uses. Education always has at least one Act to itself a year so it just fills that up with whatever primary legislative needs it has, but I’ve never known the decision to be made “hey, let’s just not have an Act from this Department this year”. Maybe it’ll happen further into the life of the Parliament, but as the government is still relatively new it needs its legislative capacity too much to give it up.

I’m not familiar with it beyond knowing that it exists and teachers are currently required to register with it. Teacher qualification and progression isn’t my area. In general I think the rationale behind our professional bodies has for a few years been a bit weird - the GTC was branded a waste of time very suddenly, for example. Furthermore, with the entry of so many Academies and Free Schools into the system we will soon have a fairly uneven set of requirements around staffing as neither of those types of schools has to follow the same rules as maintained schools (whether that’s a good thing or not I don’t know, but I suppose it undermines the point of these kind of organisations if more and more schools can just ignore them even though everyone else has to deal with them).

You’ve gone straight to the heart of one of my biggest bug bears which is non-evidence based policy making. You’re entirely right, but it’s much easier to win votes promising to put money into catching criminals and giving out tougher sentences than it is to set out an objective and independently researched collection of policies that establish the exact routes into prison for young people, and what are the critical points for and best methods to stop them getting there.

More widely I see the fact that our prisons are essentially full of uneducated poor people just another function of our massively economically unequal society, and as long as the wealth disparity is as big as it is (and continues to grow) then things aren’t going to change.

The Department’s three priorities currently are Academies, Free schools and the Pupil Premium. The PP tries to tackle the roots of social inequality by diverting more resources to those children that are socio-economically disadvantaged at an earlier point to help them catch up or excel, even. However I personally think it’s too little against a backdrop of so much social inequality, which is often very regionally specific.

Take for example Cornwall, where society is divided into the rural poor, disadvantaged locals who work mainly in seasonal tourism and who only really achieve anything by leaving the area, and the dropped out rat racers who move from London and the home counties to do professional jobs or other successful individuals who start businesses there (like Rick Stein), associate only with each other, send their children to the private schools and whose presence grossly inflates the property prices with every extension, interior redesign and barn conversion they do. How is a state school in Cornwall going to do anything with a few extra hundred pounds for a few of its children that is going to offset such a massive social mountain?

Finally, all Ministers bring with them a sense of what worked in their education and they will try and transpose that onto the system. I cite Charles Clarke and his chess clubs, Ruth Kelly with her fanatical belief in the power of families and parents, and Gove with his Latin, the King James Bible, and potential forays into increasing the size of grammar schools (which could then conceivably become the number of grammar schools). So you’re always going to have policies that are driven from a non-rational and personal perspective because of that. Ministers don’t come from the class of people that end up in prison or are unemployed for most of their life, so they don’t really know what those people need to not go to prison or get employment.

Good question, and I don’t know the answer. Teachers are in a strange position in this country of being a bit of a sacred cow, yet not particularly well paid and not receiving of that many benefits. Respect for teachers is high in a general way, but not for actual specific teachers (as in the ones in the school your own children go to, because you think they’re incompetent and they can’t control the class - not you specifically, I mean the general you), and certainly not in the way that it is in other cultures where the teaching profession is revered. I find it telling that in survey after survey poor pupil behaviour is cited as one of the main reasons teachers don’t like their jobs, or would like to leave, which I think is really not helped by the fact that their pupils don’t hold them in that high regard (compared to, say, an X Factor winner).

Hooo boy, this old can of worms. I’ve worked on policies that touch on qualification reform and of course exam/qualification integrity is part of that. This is a difficult one because on the one hand I see a lot of people stating as a fact that exams are easier and qualifications not worth the paper they’re written on without a great deal of hard evidence to support it (it’s frequently a comparison of a maths question from 1965 and one from now and saying that because the former needs a slide rule it’s de facto harder and therefore more legitimate). But on the other there are just too many people within the education sector who feels this way for it to be all a big media-driven hysteria. Personally I think a big part of it is dealt with by the issues discussed in this youtube video - it’s extremely interesting watching. In short we’re not fully clear as a society what we need our young people to know, and we then blame them that they don’t know it. Furthermore our focus on skills currently is almost entirely supply driven - all the focus was put on the target of 50% of people getting degrees and what we had to do to achieve that, and no thought was ever given to why we needed that, or if we needed that, or what those degrees should be in. This has impact things all the way down the qualification chain backwards and it means now that children are taking courses with no real understanding of whether or how they’re going to be useful.

Then there is the cultural aspect of this problem we have, where it appears that anything that is tangible and vocational is kind of looked down upon as in some way vulgar. Knowing that you want to cut hair and doing a hair and beauty course is seen as something for the gammas and the epsilons, but the betas and alphas of course need to go to university because that’s where the intelligent people go. Never mind the fact that I’ve seen the research that investigates the lifetime earning effect of degrees by subject and a lot of them in the liberal arts fall into the range where they don’t earn you enough to offset the cost of getting them. This is why we look to people with degrees in physics and maths as “hard” subjects even though degrees in philosophy and law are, as far as I can tell, no less rigorous in their own ways. Why someone who has a degree in physics is, for example, better suited to a career in high finance than someone who studied economics is a bit beyond me. But that’s what employers want, as they have confidence in those subjects but not in the liberal arts ones.

Finally there is the issue of the exam boards being companies with a financial incentive to create and market qualifications that are… ahem… not as difficult as the competitions’ qualifications, so that if you opt for your school to take them more people are likely to get a good grade. Grade inflation will continue as long as there are league tables, it’s simple behavioural economics.

Shows what you know :slight_smile:

The Oxbridge PPE types still exist, you just find them now pretty much confined to the fast stream and the Prime Minister’s strategy unit. When you hear the term “best and brightest” that means a white, middle class person with a first from Oxbridge in PPE, and I don’t see that changing in my lifetime. The rank and file of civil servants are incredibly diverse though, and you will find a whole kaleidoscope of nutters working in any Department :slight_smile:

The most tangible and immediate difference was that we were forbidden from referring to them by name after the change. After years of talking about Charles, David and Andrew it was now the Minister and the Secretary of State. This feels a bit like a step back in time for me, but it was (apparently) seen as necessary to make us a bit more respectable and show we afforded the new government proper respect also. That and the name of my Department was changed from Children Schools and Families to just Education. Whilst that might sound less cuddly and more serious, it’s also less precise as the remit of the Department is more than education (we still cover families and children’s policy).

After that immediate change I think I’ve been surprised at how the focus has drifted into a few very specific areas. As I said above our published three priorities are Academies, free schools (which are kind of academies too) and the Pupil Premium. Everything else has kind of fallen by the wayside. There is also the organisational difference that has been brought about by the fact that upon coming into office the coalition immediately froze all public sector pay for two years. For those of us working in the more pressured areas of the Department (like mine) where you’re being told continuously to do more more more, faster faster faster, and then you have no additional money, and your pension contribution costs more, and you’re an enemy of innovation and David Cameron will have you in his office if you slow things down with red tape according to the papers, AND by the way you’re a waste of space in general and the government wants there to be fewer of you… well, let’s say morale isn’t the highest I’ve ever seen it right now.

Thanks for the reply, I work in the public sector myself and can identify with much of the above, especially the effects of cutbacks and criticism on morale.

Although to be honest I’m a bit of a traditional type and not a fan of using first names or ‘soft and cuddly’ renaming, but I recognise that I’m not getting with the program on that issue.

I’m from Northern Ireland so I won’t be voting for either of them anyway (hands off our sectarian tribal politics! :wink: ) but I thought the Conservatives would bring back a bit of common sense after the eyebrow raising antics of Labour but they’re every bit as bad, just in different ways.

Haven’t had the opportunity to read all of this thread yet, but I will.

Actually that’s another question, what do you think of the decentralisation of the UK with more power being devolved to the regions, I can genuinely see Scotland leaving the union in the new future which is something I wouldn’t have believed even a few years ago.

What is your opinion on the future of Northern Ireland, if you have one?

Danke schone :wink:

Well thanks for the replies, I’m very much a ‘political’ person, though not necessarily partisan - its just that so many of the issues I face come down to the way our system works both in the smaller sense of the word and the larger one.

It will take me a little time to fully appreciate your responses - I’m quite heartened that you have though.

As for the Bell curve appraisal system, it was being run in DEFRA and a couple of the smaller agencies. Its a relative assessment system where staff may well be given their targets but the final evaluation compares the performance against peers - so even though you hit all your targets you may not have kept up with the rest of your cohort - it turns staff appraisal into a competition. It has run into some serious problems due to the bias built in that works against various protected classes of employees. I assume you will be well aware of some of the issues regarding staff grades, class etc. in the Whitehall studies.

The real issue in reducing re-offending is that nothing that is done in prison will have any useful effect unless something effective is done post release. I find it is notable that those who have employment to go to on release tend to be one or two time offenders and then they don’t tend to re-offend. Personally I think release and maintenance of freedom should be largely dependent upon the parolee to retain employment, but that of course opens up a whole load of other very difficult issues. It would certainly be very expensive, but it would be effective.

As for exams, I know of a number of locations where the learners sit shoulder to shoulder on those horrible little desk/chair things doing their tests - which is utterly against the rules of examining bodies, I also know of at least two places where the invigilator will even write up answers on a whiteboard if the group is having difficulty with particular questions, and I know of one place that selects candidates who have done the course before with a different examining body and puts them through the course again - with a small consideration offered to the learners for taking part. This allows these privately run establishments to achieve their targets in terms of pass rates and pass numbers.

And I know of worse. When my learners do an exam, its for them to pass, no speaking, no collusion, no cheating and only permitted assistance to those with learning difficulties. The target driven system is bound to lead to these sorts of issues, lots of box filling and little substance behind the numbers.