Career change: what a new civil service CV will look like

Future civil service careers will have to include public and private sector experience – but will employees return to Whitehall?

Civil servants who want to reach the top will have to follow a very different career path in future.

A typical CV will have to show a variety of secondments to other Whitehall departments and other parts of the public sector and, more significantly, time spent working in the private sector. According to the Cabinet Office, private sector experience will now be seen as a benefit rather than a hindrance when ambitious civil servants apply to climb the career ladder.

The government’s intention to shake up civil service careers was highlighted in the civil service reform plan published in June. Ministers are keen to change the culture of Whitehall, making it the norm for civil servants at all levels to move between the public and private sectors.

The existing ad-hoc programme of secondments and “interchange” or job swaps will be reformed and expanded. Although there is no single template for a typical civil service career, the intention is that the plan will create a workforce which follows a “flexible and adaptable” path. In future, annual personal development planswill be expected to include a commitment to seeking experience from a workplace outsideWhitehall.

The civil service graduate fast stream programme is also being rewritten. Next year’s cohort will for the first time be expected to take up placements in the private sector as part of their development. “We will be starting at the front of the pipeline trying to create corporate citizens for the civil service who are comfortable moving out to other organisations, with the purpose of learning and then bringing that back into the civil service”, says Gillian Smith, head of Civil Service Resourcing whose responsibilities include recruitment.

But how will the civil service go about persuading existing staff to change the way they manage their careers in future? It is a tough order, made more difficult by the failure of ministers to find a permanent replacement for Gill Rider. Rider was responsible for pushing through the civil service changes but left her post as director general of civil service reform in spring last year.

“To make this culture change happen you have to have somebody to make it happen. You have to have senior leadership – if you just leave it to departments and individuals it just won’t happen”, says Sue Ferns, head of research and specialist services at the civil service union Prospect.

According to the senior civil servants union the FDA, moving between sectors and departments has been part of the core competences expected of its members for nearly a decade. The idea was first mooted by Lord Turnbull when he was head of the civil service a decade ago and was continued by his successor Lord O’Donnell who joined the Treasury as an economist, and who often spoke about the need to create “rounded senior leaders”, according to FDA general secretary, David Penman.

“The experience at the moment, though, is once you have done a secondment or moved outside, it’s not a managed process to think about the next step – that is left to the individual to manage on their own,” says Turnbull.

The risk of top-calibre civil servants being lost to the private sector is also high when salaries can be double what they can earn inside Whitehall. It is an issue that Smith acknowledges, although she says the risks of not returning are no greater under the reform plan. “I think there is a risk but people are motivated by different things, she says. “There are lots of reasons why people come to the civil service in the first place, which aren’t always to do with salary.”

Frances Done is chair of the Youth Justice Board. Reluctant to describe herself as a civil servant, her CV includes stints in the private sector working for KPMG, as well as leading roles in local government and voluntary organisations. Done was also a Manchester city councillor for 13 years. Done says moving between sectors has not been a problem. “The difficulty for me came when I stopped being a politician and moved back into office in local government – people were worried that I would remain a politician and I absolutely couldn’t.”

Done describes the career path envisaged in the reform plan as a step in the right direction: “this whole idea that the civil service means a career for life is just not very 21st century”. She acknowledges that the culture change it requires will not happen overnight.

That view is shared by Smith, who also believes that the reform plan is a significant step towards bringing about the necessary change in culture. “For me,” says Smith, “the plan signals a culture change in terms of a shift in the value for placements and secondments where you can move between departments and sectors which hasn’t been there before.

“I think a number of people will feel that it gives them permission to seek secondments or interchanges. Before this they didn’t feel empowered in that way.” Smith adds that the reforms will allow civil servants to see that their careers are “transferable and portable”. Smith, who has 30 years’ experience as a civil servant, admits that she has never left Whitehall because “it wasn’t accepted”.

Would she have liked the opportunity? “I think that I have been very lucky in my career. I have had a variety of different roles and I haven’t felt the need [to leave]. I did complete my MBA part-time while I have been at the civil service and looking back I do think that the option for secondment or interchange would have been very valuable for me then.”

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