BRIEF SPEAKING NOTES
THE MERIT PRINCIPLE, AND ITS CONTINUING IMPORTANCE
1. Purpose of the seminar:
(a) To explore issues in an open-minded way and not state established positions.
(b) How do we reform the Civil Service and ensure that it continues to evolve and change to meet new demands without eroding its values?
2. What kind of Civil Service do we want?
Clearly one which is fit for purpose, one which is competent, has the capacity and capability for policy analysis, policy development, implementation and delivery, and communication. A Civil Service which is outward looking and engages. A Civil Service which carries the confidence of successive administrations - that is impartial.
3. I have never been a civil servant but I have worked with the Civil Service for most of my career. My observation is that it is good at managing upwards. It tends to respond and react to demands placed on it. It does not look at itself as an organisation and ask: what should its capabilities and competences be? It has never been clear to me where this thinking takes place. It would, however, be fair to say that in recent years, greater attention is being paid to professionaling support services, and issues such as leadership, active career development, performance management, and working collaboratively across departmental boundaries.
4. How do we create the Civil Service we want?
Civil Service Commissioners' immediate interest is in how appointments are made. Appointments are not the whole story - but an important aspect of creating a competent organisation.
Northcote and Trevelyan laid down the basic principle 150 years ago: appointment to the Civil Service should be on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.
They were dealing with the failings of patronage. The circumstances of mid-nineteenth century have long since gone but the principle remains important.
Apart from the risk of patronage there is an over-riding need is to get the best person for the job particularly at a time when open competition at the senior level has increased.
There is a need for greater openness and transparency. An appointments process provides a very visible indication of the approach and values of an organisation.
In a diverse multi-cultural/multi-racial society appointment on merit is crucial. Merit and diversity are not incompatible.
5. What is merit?
Not an absolute concept, as some people seem to think. Not about identifying the best all-rounded individual against a concept of what an ideal civil servant looks like - no such thing. Rather it is grounded in reality. What is the purpose of a given job? What does the job-holder have to achieve? What skills and experience does he or she need to make a success of it? What is the best way of evaluating candidates against that? And who are the best people to make that evaluation? Merit is particular to the job in question. The most meritorious candidate for one job is unlikely to be the most meritorious for the next one.
There are of course core competences for any job in the Senior Civil Service. But around and beyond that the job-holder is required to do a particular job, in a particular set of circumstances and at a particular time. Different departments will require different balances of competences, and the balance will change over time.
In recent years the Commissioners have sought to underpin merit in a number of ways:
Front-loading and rigour - make sure departments give enough thought to the job and to the competences needed before recruitment starts. And that they treat recruitment as a project, with an outcome to be achieved rather than merely a series of sequential steps to be followed as and when time and the availability of senior staff allowed. Recruitment is one of the most important activities of any organisation. I have to say how surprised I was at how little attention was given to it by senior managers when I first became First Commissioner. That is changing.
Choice of panel - decision will only be as good as the panel that makes it and the information on which it is based. Pay great attention to composition of panel - who as a panel are best placed to determine merit? Departments now regularly include a stakeholder on senior selection panels. One regularly includes a representative of those who will be line managed by the job-holder.
Recruitment techniques - much activity takes place before the final interview and is now a regular feature of senior recruitment: search; interviews with search consultants; psychological testing; references designed around the job in question. Also like the applicants to meet the senior team. So both parties know as much about other as can, and the best decision is taken.
6. The Civil Service has always had a Rolls Royce machinery for recruiting at junior levels - eg Civil Service Selection Board for the fast stream. At senior levels the Civil Service is becoming more professional about recruitment and about matching people to jobs. The rigour with which recruitment in undertaken is improving every day. Recruitment is not an exact science but the rigour and attention paid to it brings as much objectivity as is possible.
Our approach as Commissioners is to be "firm on principle, flexible on process". We are willing to be flexible on the process because our objective is to get the best for the job; we therefore encourage a process which will ensure rigorous assessment of the candidates. The present arrangements for open competition work well because of the effort, thought, rigour and appropriate involvement of all the stakeholders - but the recommendation is that of the panel which has overseen the process throughout.
7. Concluding remarks
The Commissioners sit at the cusp of where propriety, constitutional and management issues come together. We can offer an unique insight. Reform and change are much needed. However, we do not see the propriety issues as a bar or a frustration to reform. Tinkering with the rules for short-term gain will not resolve the issue of what kind of Civil Service we want. Together we must put the spotlight on the Civil Service for the future. This means identifying the right issues and addressing them properly. Merit and all that it entails must be the starting point for creating a Civil Service that is fit for purpose and continues to remain impartial.