Civil Service Commission

CSC Open Week Friday 22 March - Questions and Answers

                                                                                                   Monday’s Questions and Answers
                                                                                                   Tuesday’s Questions and Answers
                                                                                                   Wednesday’s Questions and Answers
                                                                                                   Thursday’s Questions and Answers

Jayne from the Insolvency Service has the following question about recruitment:

I read with interest David Normington’s article (issued on our intranet on 11 March 2013) having good memories of the Commission going back many years to my recruitment into the Insolvency Service.

My question is: Are there any plans to go back to centralised recruitment?

At various times I have felt a little frustrated and saddened that such an opportunity is no longer available. It strikes me that if we are truly looking to attract the best talent into the Civil Service, running national recruitment campaigns could well be the way to go, offering a variety of careers post degree, or indeed an alternative to university.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this.


Thank you for your e-mail. I am glad that you enjoyed David’s article, and have good memories of the Commission from your recruitment into the Civil Service.

As you know, the Civil Service Commission was at one time the central recruitment agency for the Civil Service. From the 1980s onwards there was progressive delegation of recruitment to departments and agencies. The Commission still has a very important role in ensuring that recruitment to the Civil Service is on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. For the most senior jobs, that is done by me, or one of my Commissioner colleagues, chairing the panel that makes the selection. For grades below SCS 2 the Commission undertakes an annual compliance monitoring exercise to check that recruitment across the Civil Service is in accordance with our Recruitment Principles. That involves self-assessments by departments followed by a targeted series of visits so we can check on the ground how recruitment is being carried out.

You ask if there are any plans to go back to central recruitment. That would be a decision for the Government, and the Commission is not aware that this is being considered. However we do detect signs that there may be a greater degree of central coordination in the future than has been the case over the past twenty years. There is increasing use of shared services and greater standardisation through new units such as Civil Service Resourcing and Civil Service Employment Policy.

Thank you again for your question. It will be one of the last we answers as our Open Week comes to an end and it is good to finish on such as positive note. We have really enjoyed hearing from civil servants across the country about the issues that are of concern to them.

With very best regards.

Peter Blausten
Civil Service Commissioner


We have another question from Iqbal in HMCTS, this time about the use of Nominated Officers:

As part of the process for the civil service code, departments subject to the code are obliged to have a certain number of nominated officers.

These nominated officers deal with concerns and queries raised initially within their department.

Firstly – can you clarify how many nominated officers each department should have in comparison with their size?

Secondly – is there a process for selection of nominated officers? My understanding is that a department should have nominated officers that both represent all grades of staff and that also reflects the general make up of staff working in that department.

I ask this question as it does not seem to be the case in the MOJ. It appears that nominated officers are designated and they have to be from a senior grade mainly based in London HQ (despite the majority of MOJ staff working outside London). I have been employed by the department for 12 years and have never seen any requests go out for staff to put their name forward to become nominated officers.

I find this to be wrong as the core values of the code are integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality and one would expect this to be reflected in how departments decide upon their nominated officers. A failure to operate a fair and transparent system would seem to undermine the code itself?

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this and any further information you could provide on how the nominated officers system operates.

Thanking you in advance

Iqbal. Thank you for another interesting question, this time about Nominated Officers. The introduction of Nominated Officers was a Cabinet Office initiative at the time of the revision of the Civil Service Code in 2006. The Government agreed that arrangements should be put in place to help to ensure that civil servants who may have concerns relating to the Civil Service Code are able to receive impartial advice from someone outside their management chain, should they wish it. Permanent Secretaries in each department nominated certain staff to act in this capacity in addition to their normal duties. We know that many departments do seek volunteers to be Nominated Officers, and that the role is not a part of a particular job role, but is something the individual takes on, like being a first aider or staff support officer. Nominated Officers are directly responsible in this role to the Permanent Secretary, and will act with his or her authority.

In 2009 and 2011, the Commission audited work being done by Departments to promote and uphold the Code and within this exercise we collected information about Nominated Officers and what training, support and feedback was available to them. A direct result of the 2009 exercise, we published our own recommendations and good practice guidance. Within this guidance we recommended that there should be a Nominated Officer network that is appropriate to the individual organisation, reflecting the number of staff and the organisation’s geographical spread. We also recommended that the grade profile should all be in the top grades of the Senior Civil Service. Feedback from the audit processes was fed back to the Departments and Agencies who took part, as were details of our recommendations and good practice guidance.

With best regards.

Christine Farnish
Civil Service Commissioner


Iqbal from HMCTS has the following observations to make about the use of agency staff:

It is becoming more transparent that the Civil Service, especially in the MOJ are contracting more agency staff into the organisation to replace permanent posts or do permanent work, this is usually on a come and go system, some agency based colleagues are only recruited for a few months, then replaced by other agency colleagues and so on. If there is a permanent post it needs to be filled permanently through the basis of the Civil Service recruitment principles in order to create a more effective, efficient workforce, and to retain experience without continuously investing to have different staff trained on the same job role countless times throughout the year. Permanent positions are very rarely advertised now, and it is not only those who are seeking employment or working temporarily via agency or fixed term contract who suffer, but also those who are permanent already employed within that department, on a lower grade hoping that they can apply for a promotion.


Thank you for your question about the use of agency staff, which raises some very interesting issues, for example the need for permanent staff to have to continuously put effort into training an ever-changing workforce of temps .

Agency staff are not civil servants, they remain employed by their agency. But they should do their work in the Civil Service in accordance with the values in the Civil Service Code, and the contractual agreement between the department and the agency should make this clear.

I cannot comment on the details of the use of agency staff in the MoJ, as I am afraid I have no knowledge of that; but as a general point when an organisation is changing the way it works and even what it tries to do, then the use of agency staff can be a valuable resource in keeping a function or service going that might be changing or even ceasing in the future. Agency staff can also be valuable in dealing with peaks and troughs in activity when there is not enough continuous work to justify recruiting more permanent staff. There can be dangers, as you suggest if they are used to fill permanent posts, as experience and corporate memory might be endangered if too much of the work is done by temps, and their training may take up a disproportionate amount of the permanent staff’s time.

As I say, it is really not possible for me to comment on what is happening in the MoJ, but is it not possible for you or your colleagues to raise these issues with senior staff, through staff forums or by other means?

With best regards.

Christine Farnish
Civil Service Commissioner


Neil from HMRC has several questions to ask about Civil Service recruitment:

What makes the Commission think the current methods of recruitment and promotion will get the right people into the right jobs or indeed are fair?

In the last year I have applied for a number of roles on promotion, on one occasion HMRC was looking for HO’s, some to work as caseworkers, others as managers. An online test was to determine those whose competencies would be looked at. I applied for the caseworker role expecting to be tested on relevant skills. A generic civil service (CS) test was used however not a bespoke test. Numeracy tests would certainly have been appropriate to the role, as would comprehension tests, perhaps based upon the interpretation of legislation. Instead, other than a few numerical questions, the bulk of the test was situational, the focus being on people management scenarios with problems outlined & applicants having to grade 3 possible solutions by appropriateness. I found this to be totally inappropriate! I will confine myself to 2 reasons – a) I was applying for a caseworker not management role, b) the questions sought the applicant’s opinion & the ‘correct’ answers will be dependent on the culture of the employer, contracts, union agreements, legislation, the country the scenario is set in , its national morals & ethics. The scenarios were lengthy, but none of this information was provided. Assuming ‘correct’ answers were based upon the scenarios reflecting UK CS culture, contracts, union agreements & law etc, the test favours candidates with a) management experience, particularly in the CS, &/or b) good knowledge of UK employment law &/or c) who have never worked outside the UK CS or been subject to different work cultures & management systems. The test might help identify managers who fit in with Civil Service culture, but not in my view, HMRC caseworkers. I ‘passed’ the test, but whilst I got every factual question correct, I apparently expressed insufficient ‘correct’ opinions for the rest of my application to be looked at. This also effectively ruled me out of all promotion chances involving a test for six months.

Can the CS genuinely claim that recruitment & promotion is based on merit?

From what I have seen, qualifications, experience, examples, results, consistency or even managers’ opinion, which in my previous jobs outside the Civil Service have determined progress, count for next to nothing inside the Civil Service. In reality, promotion is based upon one ‘competency’ only, namely the ability to write a truncated story in a fashion that a sifter thinks correctly follows the required formula. Whatever the mysterious formula the sifters are looking for, I have not so far mastered it & despite having excellent results & many examples that managers and colleagues (including some with sifting experience) have thought were extremely good, I seem to be on a long road to nowhere. As for feedback, the little that is given leads me to question whether the sifters have even read my examples let alone understood them as the comments have little relationship to what I have actually written. Those that have leapt from AO to HO in a matter of months on the basis of a couple of regurgitated examples which meet the formula are no doubt delighted with the system, I with many examples none of which I seem to be able to pen in the approved manner am less than enthusiastic.



Thank you for your detailed comments, which we have read with interest. You have clearly struggled on occasion to see the relevance of some of the on-line testing you have had to do for some of the roles you have applied for; and believe that ‘competency based recruitment’ can sometimes be a straight jacket that rewards a particular type of skill, that may not actually be really relevant for the specific job.

You may have picked up from our answers to earlier questions this week that the Civil Service Commission does not have a role in regulating internal movement within the Civil Service. We have a statutory responsibility to ensure that entry into the Civil Service is on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, but we have been given no powers to regulate internal promotions and transfers. So, although I cannot comment on the detailed points in your e-mail, we will include the issues that you raise in the summary that we circulate to the senior management in the Civil Service, because we believe it is important that they are aware of the issues that are of concern to civil servants.

With best regards.

Peter Blausten
Civil Service Commissioner


A civil servant from the RPA observes:

I note from your response to Alex from HMRC that you cannot comment on internal moves. You should however be aware that the device of ‘managed moves’ is actively used to move people into place ahead of temporary promotion opportunities which are then advertised as permanent. Twice over the last 18 months I have been ‘managed moved’ out of a post to see someone else moved in and then temporarily promoted, with the posts then advertised when the new incumbent has had time to settle in. This patronage of favourites is a growing concern and follows the substantial number of Directors who are coming into the Civil Service from the private sector who don’t share core Civil Service values. There is little point complaining within the management chain as those are the people who have sanctioned the moves. I will take the hint and look elsewhere but it is something you need to look at and investigate.

You should also be aware that this week I have seen six new permanent jobs advertised internally on an ‘expressions of interest’ basis, which I presume is to avoid the inconvenience of your open online civil service recruitment process.

Thank you for your question. You are right, as we have had to explain to a number of people who have contacted us this week, the Commission’s statutory powers relate to entry into the Civil Service. We do not have a role in regulating promotions and movements within the service.

However, we are interested to hear the experiences of civil servants and we have picked up this week that there are concerns in different parts of the Civil Service about how internal movements are managed. When the numbers of civil servants are reducing, and promotion opportunities are scarce, perhaps it is not surprising that these concerns should surface. But the Civil Service Management Code does say that all promotions and transfers should follow from a consideration of merit. These are the internal rules of the Civil Service, though we do not have a role in ensuring that they are enforced.

You also raise an interesting point about whether people brought into the Civil Service understand and share the same values as those who have been in for much longer. I and my fellow Commissioners chair external competitions for the most senior grades in the Civil Service and this is one area that we try to ensure is always tested through the recruitment process: whether the candidates understand and can live up to the values in the Civil Service Code.

We will be passing a summary of all the issues that have been raised with us this week to Permanent Secretaries and Human Resources Directors, it is important that they hear about the issues that are of concern to the staff.

Thank you again for your question. With best regards.

Christine Farnish
Civil Service Commissioner


Rakesh has some interesting observations concerning external recruitment to the Civil Service:

My question (or observation, lament, worry!) is as follows:

Ever since (mid 2010?), we (the UK Civil Service) got on to various new initiatives and austerity measures, like Comprehensive Spending Review, DRG (DfT Resourcing Group) and the latest Civil Service Resourcing, there has been this moratorium of sorts not to advertise any civil service vacancies externally. If at all advertised externally, that’s after a long winded internal process and really a last, last resort.

This idea, I understand, was borne out of the 33% reduction in Admin burden as it were and, therefore, was to extend the philanthropic pastoral support to the staff at risk.

I do, however, disagree with the efficacy of the above arrangement to not invite general members of public for recruitment, and that it has gone on for nearly three years now although supposedly a ‘temporary measure’ also doesn’t bear well.

I say that for it assumes that as someone is already working in the civil service, the experience ought to be enough to get them into other jobs within the wider civil service. This reasoning is fundamentally flawed and not in accordance with the competency based recruitment practices. Experience doesn’t necessarily mean or equate to Competence, likewise someone not from civil service may be ‘demonstrably competent’ but unable to even put their hand up as they haven’t got a chance to do so?

Besides, sticking to this ideology as a ‘permanent’ or ‘semi-permanent’ measure:
– doesn’t seem equitable and doesn’t, in my opinion, conform to the ethos of the Civil Service Code;
– seems to have encouraged what I’d term, ‘corporate incest’, more so in specialist technical areas;
– supports the fallacy that there aren’t any suitable candidates outside of the civil service;
– seems to allow easier indulgence into nepotism.

I’d be happy to note of your views.

I’d like to state that I ask these in ‘personal capacity and ‘withouth prejudice’.

Thanks and kind regards

Thank you for your interesting question about external recruitment into the Civil Service. As you say, from May 2010 there has been ‘freeze’ on recruitment apart from business critical and front-line posts. Actually, it is clear that this has not stopped all recruitment to the Civil Service: the last figures published by the Office for National Statistics showed that there were 12,570 entrants into the Civil Service in the year April 2011 to March 2012. This is down on the numbers of new joiners before the recruitment freeze came into effect, but does indicates that there is still a significant number of people being recruited each year.

The Civil Service, like any large organisation has to balance the need to develop and promote its existing staff with the advantages of bringing in new skills, experiences and viewpoints in from the outside. The Public Administration Select Committee is currently holding an inquiry into the future of the Civil Service. The Civil Service Commission submitted written evidence to the inquiry and David Normington, the First Civil Service Commissioner gave oral evidence on behalf of the Commission. In our evidence we stressed the need for the Civil Service to undertake a proper audit of what skills it needed for now and the future and where there were gaps. The next stage would be a proper plan of how those skill gaps could be made up; some of this would be through developing existing staff, and some of it through recruiting in people with those skills from outside the Civil Service. You can see our written evidence and connect to a video of David’s appearance before the Committee on our website:

Of course where recruitment into the Civil Service does take place the law requires that it is on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. It is for departments to decide when they need to open up their vacancies to external candidates, but when they do they must ensure that their recruitment fulfils this legal requirement and is in line with our published Recruitment Principles.

Thank you again for your question.

Peter Blausten
Civil Service Commissioner


The following is from Lester, who works in MOJ, and is about the misuse of the Civil Service Code:

Dear Sir/Madam

I am a civil servant working currently  in the MOJ. I would like to start by congratulating the Civil Service Commission on holding this open week to field questions and queries. I do hope that you will archive all of the questions and the replies given this week on your web pages, as I think it would be an extremely useful reference point for current and future civil servants.

I would also like to take this chance to thank the Commission for having such excellent guidance on the Civil Service Code and for making it easily available on their web pages. Personally I find this guidance extremely well put together in such a way that it is easy to comprehend and to put in to practice.

I would encourage all civil servants and especially anyone reading this to take some time out and read the history relating to how we got to where we are today with the Code (constitutional reform and governance act 2010) – from the embryonic stages set forth in the Northcote- Trevelyan report of 1854 to events such as the Belgrano affair and the involvement of the trades unions in the 1980’s on drafting a code of ethics for civil servants.

The main reason for me contacting you is to raise my concerns on how the Code is put into practice in the departments and agencies of the Government where it applies – especially the MOJ. I hope that by highlighting what I perceive as serious problems with the Code and its use, other civil servants will come forward and share similar experiences – whether good or bad. With the ultimate aim of helping the Commission understand where any problems may lay, so that these issues may be taken forward and resolved.

My experience is that the Civil Service Code is used as a de-facto second tier internal conduct policy to bully and harass staff – especially more junior grades. I fully understand that the code does not cover human resource management issues and that individual departments will have and should use, their own conduct and discipline policies for such matters – unfortunately those with certain levels of managerial responsibility do not. These include SCS level management down to HEO/band C levels and senior HR business partners. Examples which highlight this include threatening to use the Code against staff at a collective internal grievance resolution meeting regarding internal recruitment with no public interest dimension and the Code being consistently referred to incorrectly as ‘the civil service code of conduct’ (with the intention of using the Code as a second tier internal conduct policy as previously mentioned).

I have personally been attacked and threatened with the misuse of the Code in this way but have managed to ward of these attacks due to my understanding of the Code, even so it was still a stressful experience for me. Others have not been so lucky and if it would enlighten the Commissioners’ understanding of the issues I would be happy to share them (I have numerous examples recorded in emails and minutes etc.) with the hope that we can all move things forward so that the Code is used properly.

I do believe that your previous replies to questions highlight a plethora of problems associated with using the Code incorrectly, especially non-coverage of human resource issues. I am a firm believer that the issue lies with Departments not educating staff at all levels and that these Departments should invest far more time in training staff to understand what the Code is and more importantly, what it is not. I have received no training on the Code and know that my colleagues have not either; I have had to seek out and understand the Code myself – mainly from your web pages. The only time we get to hear about the Code is when it is being used as a blunt tool to bully and threaten staff, or during the annual staff survey when closed questions, which in my opinion do not go far enough, are asked.

I am sorry to paint such a gloomy picture but it is how I and many of my colleagues find it. It is I fear, so bad that I will become a pariah in my own department for actually raising the issues I have publicly.  I just hope it encourages others to come forward and share their experiences. After all I believe that there is a public interest dimension in ensuring that the Civil Service Code is used correctly.


Lester, thank you for your detailed and considered thoughts about the Civil Service Code. It is good to hear that you have found the Commission’s website to be a clear source of information on the Code.

We greatly appreciate that you have felt able to share your views with us, and with those following the progress of our Open Week. You offer to provide further details so that we can understand the issues which you raise in greater depth and with more clarity. We would like to take you up on this offer. Please contact Bill Brooke who is our senior official leading on our work on the Civil Service Code . This would be to understand the general issues you raise, and would not influence any investigation the Commission might undertake if a specific complaint was brought to us in future.

The Civil Service Code is the ethical Code of the Civil Service and describes the core values of Integrity, Honesty, Objectivity and Impartiality, which should guide the conduct of all civil servants, from the most junior to the most senior. If a civil servant believes that they are being asked to do something that goes against these values, or sees another civil servant acting in such a way, they should raise it within their department. The Code makes clear that departments have a duty to consider concerns raised under the Code and to ensure that a civil servant is not penalised for raising a concern. Ultimately, a civil servant can bring their concern to us, the independent Civil Service Commission, if they are not satisfied with the way their department has dealt with it. The Commission can also take complaints direct, if we think it is the right thing to do. The Commission would share your concern if the Code was being used inappropriately.

As you say, the Code contains a statement that it does not cover human resources management issues. These should be dealt with through separate departmental grievance procedures.

At the end of our Open Week, we will be circulating a summary of the issues raised to Permanent Secretaries and Human Resources Directors so they can see the concerns and issues that have been raised by civil servants. Your comments will of course be included in this. As you suggest, our intention is to archive the questions and answers from this week on our website for a period so they are available for reference.

Thank you for starting this dialogue, and we do look forward to hearing more from you. If anyone else reading this on our website has similar experiences, we would really like to hear from them.

With best regards.

Kathryn Bishop
Civil Service Commissioner



To kick off, we have a follow up question from Duncan who asked about fair and open competition in private sector recruitment

Thank you for your email.

I have discovered a certain national company didn’t apply fair and open competition in its recruitment.  The appointment was based on nepotism.  Please,could you advice me where to lodge my complaints/grievance in such a matter that relates to private or voluntary sectors.

Duncan Thank you for your further e-mail following our reply from David Normington.

The requirement that selection for appointment to the Civil Service should be on merit on the basis of fair and open competition only applies in law to the Civil Service. We think it represents good recruitment practice and would expect responsible employees to be guided by this principle, but as a legal requirement it only effects the Civil Service. Of course there are other employment laws that relate to equal opportunities which may be relevant. I would suggest you could ask at a Citizens Advice Bureau about how to get your complaints considered.

With best regards

Kathryn Bishop
Civil Service Commissioner