Civil Service Commission

Open Week Tuesday 25 February

An interesting question now from Simon at HM Passport Office:

I am a current Civil Servant who is in the process of applying for other positions within the organisation and am emailing as part of the virtual open week advertised.  When compiling my evidence for competencies, I have been unable to determine what the references to ‘senior levels’ in each of the definitions mean. Neither the Competency Framework document, nor any job advert or other material I have seen seems to clarify whether or not particular jobs are classed as ‘senior level’ or not. Given that the competency definitions specify a higher level of expertise for such vacancies, it is unclear exactly what is required for any particular job application (and therefore how to pitch any answer or whether you are even able to provide sufficient evidence). In order for recruiters to be able to fairly and effectively assess applications, I presume each vacancy is assigned as either being ‘senior level’ or not. In the interests of clarity and fairness to potential applicants, it seems that vacancy adverts, the Competency Framework document or both should be altered to clarify this uncertainty. I would be extremely grateful for some clarification on this.


Simon, thank you for your e-mail which relates to the Civil Service Competency Framework 2012-17, which is now used for all Civil Service vacancies.

These are the Civil Service’s competencies, not the Commission’s.  So, really, your question should be directed to your own management or to HR

However, I have had a look at the Competency Framework in the light of your question.  My reading of the reference to ‘senior levels’ in the preamble to each of the competencies is that the more senior the role the more likely it is you will need to demonstrate the requirements set out there.  So, for example in “Setting Direction”, the more senior, the more you will be held to demonstrate the ability to create a culture of innovation and allow people to take managed risks.  This reflects the fact that as you get more senior, the more likely you are to be playing a leadership role in relation to other staff.

Having said that the core requirement in applying for any job is to address the specific competency framework for the level to which you are applying.  If I were you, I would concentrate first on getting that right.

David Normington

First Civil Service Commissioner


The next question concerns online testing in recruitment exercises:

I am writing this email with regards to an online situational judgement test I just completed for my DFID graduate development scheme application. After completing the test, I received the news that I was unsuccessful, however was not given no reasons, or a mark demonstrating where exactly I went wrong. 

I invested an excessive amount of time into my application form, answering the competency questions stating my relevant skills and experiences, which I believe were sufficient enough to progress to the next stage. I am struggling to understand that my application will not even be looked at, let alone considered for progression, due to the fact I did not pass the sift test. I understand the purposes for the test are to rank the potential candidates, however I felt this should have been done initially before candidates invest so much time, such as I did, in completing the actual application. 

I had previously emailed the DFID team and was told the online test would be similar to numerical and verbal reasoning tests, however the test in which I sat was in fact a situational judgement test. Although there were some questions which did require my numerical reasoning, I have sat numerical and verbal reasoning tests in the past and this sift test was not similar. 

I am quite concerned and would like a valuable explanation or reasoning, as to why the recruitment process works this way, and furthermore why my application will not be looked at, as I am certain this will now be the case.


Thank you for your question. 

It is not possible for me to comment on all the specific points you raise, but I would like to make a couple of more general points. 

You say that you received no reason why you were unsuccessful in your application. It is good practice for recruiting organisations to provide feedback to candidates if requested and I would suggest that you ask for specific feedback. This will help you if you decide to apply for this scheme again or any similar scheme. You may have to be persistent in your request, but I think it is worth it.

It is not clear to me if you were unsuccessful just based on the results of the on-line test, or whether your written application was also considered. It is frustrating to put a lot of effort into an application and to be unsuccessful. But any job worth having is going to demand a lot of effort from you and that is unavoidable. 

Thank you for contributing to the Commission’s ‘Open Week’, and best of luck with your future job applications.

Wanda Goldwag

Civil Service Commissioner


This question comes from Alan at DWP:

My thoughts are more of a suggestion than a question. When jobs of a higher grade become available is it not more cost efficient to promote internally. Existing staff have many year’s experience already without the need for costly training.



Thank you for your comment/question.

There has been a trend to open more senior vacancies to public competition in recent times. This reflects a view that the Civil Service will never be able to fill all its skill needs from inside and that it is positively beneficial to bring in some people from outside with different perspectives, skills and leadership capabilities. What usually happens when there is a senior vacancy is that there is an assessment by senior managers (sometimes involving Ministers) of the available internal talent and the pros and cons of opening the post to competition. The decision whether to hold an open competition is taken on a case by case basis. There is no automatic presumption for or against an internal promotion.


David Normington

First Civil Service Commissioner


Our next question is from Martin at the Department for Education:

A new EO joined my unit in the Autumn.  I am not sure if new recruits are still supposed to sign the Official Secrets Act.  Grateful for advice.


Hello Martin, 

We are not the experts on the Official Secrets Act and you should really ask your HR Department.  But our understanding is that, while civil servants are still bound by the Official Secrets Act, the requirement actually to sign it was removed when a new Act was passed in 1989.  I clearly remember signing the Act back in 1973 when I joined the Civil Service.  At the time it seemed like a solemn moment!

The House of Commons Library has published a research paper on the history of official secrecy legislation which you might find interesting:

With best regards. 


David Normington

First Civil Service Commissioner


Our next question, from somebody who has asked to remain anonymous, concerns the distinction between ‘Whistleblowing’ and the Civil Service Code:

I’m interested in your views as to how the Civil Service Code relates to whistleblowing policies. 

Do you think that a Goverment Department can rely on the CS Code to cover all issues that might arise under whistleblowing policies or would you expect the Code to be more of a final stage resort after internal processes had been exhausted?  I can imagine circumstances where someone may want something looked into but not think it important enough to warrant a complaint under the code.  Is there any guidance around this?


Thank you for your e-mail which raises a really important point about the relationship between the Civil Service Code and ‘Whistleblowing’. The Commission finds that departments very often struggle to describe the relationship between these two.

‘Whistleblowing’ is a term that is often used in relation to the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), which is often called the ‘Whistleblowing Act’. PIDA is part of employment law and can provide protection in certain defined circumstances to those who reveal information that a company or organisation might want kept confidential.

The Civil Service Code is the ethical code that is part of the terms and conditions of all civil servants. It describes and explains the core values of the Civil Service: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. The Civil Service Code covers a much wider range than PIDA. 

I think what is behind your question is how departments can create an environment where people feel confident and encouraged to raise their concerns. ‘Whistleblowing’ may not be the best term for it as it suggests something has gone badly wrong and desperate measures are required. ‘Raising concerns’ is probably a better term – departments should want to hear concerns as early as possible so they have a chance to act before something really serious does go wrong. As you suggest, not everything needs to be a formal complaint under the Code (though everyone should feel that is also encouraged and supported). If there are concerns, people should feel empowered to raise them as early as possible and by the route they feel most comfortable using.

The Commission has produced some guidance for departments on the relationship between Whistleblowing and the Civil Service Code which you may find interesting.

Thank you again for your contribution to the Commission’s ’Open Week’.

Wanda Goldwag

Civil Service Commissioner


Our first question comes from a MOJ employee:

I was employed as a Civil Servant for 12 years, my last employment was with HMCTS.  I had to resign for family reasons (my husband changed employment and we re-located, but I was unable to obtain a transfer).

In August 2012 I was employed as an agency member of staff at the local Family and Civil County Court.  

I have proved myself to be a valuable member of staff (and can provide evidence of support from my Managers and my colleagues).  I work on the family section and can perform all duties on the sections and I also currently perform Court Clerk duties which I am sure you can appreciate is a role that involves liaising with Judiciary, members of the public and Solicitors/Lawyers and is not a role that can be performed by all members of staff.

I feel very frustrated at the current recruitment process.  I applied for a fixed term contract and initially passed the sift score (the process involved a set of 15 scenarios and putting in order the 4 choices of how you would react), however because there was a huge response the sift score was raised and I was not selected for interview.  My work history was not looked at or considered which I feel is completely wrong. 

My Delivery Manager was promised 5 members of staff, however nearly a year to the start of the recruitment process only 3 are in place and all three require substantial training before they would reach the standard that I have obtained.

I feel that it would save time and costs (recruitment and training) if a manager was able to recommend that a person currently in post on an agency basis be kept on either a fixed term or permanent basis.  A manager would not make this recommendation if an agency worker was not suitable. 

I believe my managers feel very frustrated by Shared Services and the current recruitment  policy and that they would like some say in the persons who are selected to work for them, especially ones that have proved they can perform the roles required.

I also note in the policy that you make provision for Civil Servants to apply for re-instatement but time limited to 5 years.  I do feel (considering my own circumstances and others) that this should be increased to between 10 and 15 years.  This would allow for persons who resigned to raise a family to rejoin the Civil Service and perhaps keep the entitlements that they had built up previously.  Five years is a very short time when raising more than one child.


Thank you for your e-mail.

I hope you will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on your personal circumstances, but you do raise a number of interesting and important issues that I would like to respond to.

The law requires that selection for appointment to the Civil Service is ‘on merit on the basis of fair and open competition’; and the Civil Service Commission must publish ‘Recruitment Principles’ interpreting this requirement. The principle of recruitment on merit to an impartial Civil Service does not mean that recruitment processes have to be long and complicated. The Commission tries to keep our list of ‘must dos’ down to the minimum to allow departments and agencies to devise processes that suit their own needs. We do however sometimes come across recruitment procedures that seem unnecessarily complex and long-winded. This does not have to be the way it is, and we do all we can to encourage departments to streamline their procedures.

Because the law requires civil servants to be appointed through fair and open competition, it is not usually possible for people who have worked on agency staff or on a temporary contract to be given preferential treatment when vacancies occur. I know this can be frustrating. But in any competition the sifting process should take account of the evidence which an applicant presents against the criteria for the job. Previous experiences will normally be helpful, but when lots of people apply it can be no guarantee of success.

You make a point about the Commission’s exception which allows departments to bring people back into the Civil Service if they left less than five years previously and were originally recruited on merit through fair and open competition. You suggest that five years may be too short a time. When the Commission fixed this exception at five years we thought this struck the right balance between upholding the merit principle and providing flexibilities for departments to reemploy good, qualified ex-civil servants.

The Commission is currently consulting on a new draft of our Recruitment Principles. We have especially looked at the exceptions we allow to recruitment on merit, and whether they are right, but for ex-civil servants we are still proposing a five year cut-off. We would be glad to hear from anyone with views on whether five years is the appropriate limit, or indeed on any other aspect of our proposed re-draft of the Recruitment Principles.

Thank you again for your e-mail.

 With best regards.


David Normington

First Civil Service Commissioner