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Bin the paper, kill off tick boxes – how to fix civil service appraisals

By DPF Admin22nd March 2016August 6th, 2019Area Updates, Latest News, Northern Updates, Southern Updates

When you’re a child, receiving clear, transparent judgment is a daily experience. School reports, test scores, sporting results – your performance, in absolute terms and relative to your peers, is set out for all to see in red pen, gold stars and player-of-the-match trophies.

One of the under-appreciated privileges of adulthood is that people don’t often tell you that you’re rubbish at stuff. The annual appraisal ritual interrupts this blissful ignorance of our failings. Perhaps childhood trauma is why some people hate appraisals so much.

Performance management is unpopular these days. Some management consultancies – the characters who sold the wheeze in the first place – have abandoned it. The civil service blog’s comment board is peppered with complaints about the current system, which trade unions have repeatedly expressed concerns about. Whitehall is now looking into how it can create better tools to accompany the process.

When I worked in Whitehall I sat on both sides of the table in civil service appraisal meetings. The point was to motivate people to be more successful in their jobs. Yet I can’t think of a single time when I didn’t leave feeling exhausted, and I doubt I succeeded in avoiding that feeling in the people who reported to me.

So what’s to be done? Here are four ideas:

1.  Find meaningful carrots and sticks

Civil service performance management is toothless. For better or worse, the incentives of the appraisal game in business management are clear. Do well enough and you’ll get a substantial financial reward. Do poorly enough, and you’ll get a box and a P45.

In the public sector, both ends of this doubled-edged sword are blunted. Civil servants do not get fired for poor performance unless the circumstances are exceptional. While top performers get bonuses, they are generally equivalent to about 5% of salary. In finance, the average is more like 25%.

I’m not saying that it should be easier to fire civil servants, or that we should hand out bigger bonuses. The public sector is not like banking. Applying the financial logic of private sector performance management systems to government doesn’t work because the spectrum of incentives is narrower. The public sector needs levers that are meaningful, which differentiate between levels of performance.

2. Support specialists as well as generalists

The civil service competency framework (pdf) sets out what good civil servants do and don’t do. More than any other document, it underpins the primacy of generalism in government. It’s a quiet menace.

If you are, say, a front-end developer or data scientist, being set against such a yardstick is perplexing. You have a choice: conform to the framework (which negates the point of being a talented specialist), fudge the process, or get a poor mark.

Your manager is in a quandary too, especially if they are sharing management responsibilities with someone else. They might be a generalist, in which case they will have no idea whether you’re doing anything useful. Or they might be a specialist and be as thrown by the framework as you are.

This isn’t just a problem for shiny new digital people either. One of the most brilliant analysts I worked with in government could never be legitimately recognised by the appraisal system because he couldn’t find anything to write in the appropriate boxes.

3. Bin the paper

When I was a senior civil servant, I had to read and countersign 19 performance reports – around 15,000 words – every six months. I was lucky. Some had scores, even hundreds to deal with. When you added up the time to think about, write and review these things across all the central departments, it amounted to tens of thousands of hours and millions of pounds in staff time.

There are only two reasons to have an appraisal paper trail. One is to protect people if poor performance becomes an issue. The other is to provide material for internal job applications.

Neither of those has anything to do with helping people do their jobs more effectively. Appraisal conversations, I grant you, will sometimes do that. The bits of paper never do.

4. Kill off box markings

Other than pay, nothing has irked civil servants more in recent years than box markings. The idea is simple – every member of staff must be placed somewhere in a matrix indicating their relative performance. The kicker is “forced distribution”; every box must have a certain percentage of staff in it, including the bottom one.

During my six years in Whitehall, I was assessed using a four-box system, a nine-box system and a three-box system that had a secret fourth box.

Even if it were stable and consistent across government, this system is maddening for managers and employees alike. It is arbitrary. It is open to gaming and horse-trading between managers. It distracts from the nuances of an appraisal conversation. It demotivates everyone outside the top box at a stroke. And again, it fundamentally fails to support people to do a better job.

I don’t think we should necessarily end performance management. I’m a believer in tying performance to incentives. The civil service just needs to find the right processes to help people improve.

This is an edited version of a blog by Andrew Greenway, a freelance digital consultant and former civil servant at the Government Office for Science and the Government Digital Service.

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