Gisela Stuart speaks at the Annual FDA Conference

First Commissioner, Gisela Stuart, gave a keynote speech at the First Division Association annual conference on 12 May. You can find the full text of her speech below:

Good morning – and thank you for inviting me to speak.

I’m Gisela Stuart and I am here today in my role as the First Civil Service Commissioner.

This is my first public speech since starting in March. Evidence that your General Secretary has his finger on the pulse! 

Before joining the House of Lords in 2020, first as a non-affiliated Peer and now as a Crossbencher, I was an MP for 20 years. 

In the first Blair term I served as a Health Minister. I was on several select committees including the Intelligence and Security Committee which oversees MI5, GCHQ and MI6. 

Unlike most of my predecessors in the role of First Civil Service Commissioner I have not been a civil servant. 

But I have worked with civil servants. I have had to rely on them and trust their advice.

I have experienced first-hand the importance of an effective and impartial civil service and the value of the ethical principles which underpin all their work. 

There are no universal laws which tell us how to run a society. Democracy is a system of trial and error where we continually try to find partial solutions to recurring problems. 

As an example, I have experienced three fuel crises. One in 1973/74 when we run out of electricity because there was no coal being mined, one in 1999 when the supply chain broke down and the last one during the pandemic when arguable there were sufficient supplies but panic broke out. All three had different causes, but some of the solutions remained the same as were some of the knee-jerk reactions which had to be avoided. 

Politicians bring with them the impatience of the moment. They want things done today as they look over their shoulders worrying about the next re-shuffle or the next election. 

Civil servants tend to be more cautious and provide collective and enduring memory and impartial advice. Both entered their professions because they are committed to public service.

Tensions arise here but they are part of the essential checks and balances of a functioning democracy. 

However, politicians can answer back when they feel they have been unfairly attacked and criticised, civil servants can’t. If they do, it is usually a resigning matter. 

You have to rely on others to make your case and defend your professional integrity. I know that the FDA has spoken up in the past, as have other trade unions, and I am glad they have done so. And we all should speak up when we see integrity and professionalism undermined. 

Can I also say that to my mind briefings and anonymous attacks are not just wrong they are also counter-productive. They don’t make things better but risk putting talented people off working in government

And helping the Civil Service attract and recruit people with the skills and abilities it needs – on merit - is at the core of my role.

Asking “what is the Civil Service Commission and what do they do” is a legitimate question and some of you may not have come across us before. 

The Commission, as well as the Civil Service, have as their foundation document a report published in 1854. The Northcote-Trevelyan Report talked about a British Civil Service with the “core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”.

It recommended that entry to the Civil Service be solely on merit, to be enforced through the use of examinations. 

That is still our core function today, to regulate the entry into the Civil Service, albeit since the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010 we have been put on a statutory basis.

It is a very thoughtful piece of legislation which defines boundaries and powers but leaves room for evolutionary development. For example, there is a statutory duty to have a “Civil Service Code”, but does not define what that code should contain. 

As the “Frist Civil Service Commissioner” I lead the Board of eleven Commissioners who regulate appointments into the civil service. We are all appointed by Her Majesty the Queen and serve a five-year non-renewable term. 

Our titles may have a touch of Gilbert & Sullivan about them, but the concept - eleven (diverse) individuals with senior experience of the private, public and voluntary sectors providing public assurance that appointments are made fairly – is a sound (and entirely modern) one.

Our key interest is that anyone joining the Civil Service is appointed fairly and on merit – not on the basis of patronage or nepotism (which was the driving force behind the establishment of the Commission following the Northcote Trevelyan report.)

The Commission’s logo on an advertisement for a Civil Service job tells you that the competition will be regulated in line with the statutory requirement of “merit after a fair and open competition”. 

The Commission’s recruitment principles set out what this means in practice. These are intentionally principles – and not narrow Rules. 

The Commission has a second role as the independent appeal body for civil servants making a complaint under the Civil Service Code. 

We help departments promote the Civil Service values of impartiality, objectivity, honesty and integrity. 

Some of you may have come across the Commission, either through a recruitment exercise or our chairing of senior competitions. Today, I’d like to talk to you about how we – as the regulator – want to support, enable, challenge and celebrate the work of the Civil Service.  

To deliver the government’s priorities – and even more so at a time of major national and global challenges - the Civil Service must continually bring in  - as well as train and retain - people with the relevant skills and experience. In some departments this requires more emphasis on policy than delivery, but the two should never be seen separately. Deliverability has to be a core element of good policy.  

The Civil Service exists for a purpose and the concept of an impartial permanent Civil Service relies on a workforce that is able to face new challenges. It is what Gus O’Donnell once coined as 4Ps  ‘passion, pace, professionalism and pride’.

Some of the skills required may never be found within the permanent Civil Service. I am thinking of the role of Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientific Officer and a number of the new openings around nuclear energy.

Others may only be needed for a short period and for very specific purposes. Developing vaccines and managing large scale supply chains in response to lock down and the pandemic come to mind.

At the top level we need the ability to use data, not just to justify existing policies but to anticipate where policy intervention may be needed in the future. 

The public we serve expects fast and responsive service delivery. Every one of us, when we are not in our professional capacity, takes the last sentence as a given. 

No one doubts the need for continued reform – and ability to adapt and respond to changing circumstances, but we tend to have diverging views on the scale and the pace. 

The Government’s 2021 Declaration on Government Reform is a shared document between Ministers and the Civil Service leadership. This is important to us at the Commission. Effective government relies on working together in the public interest. 

It calls for greater ‘porosity’ and commits to relocating civil service jobs away from Whitehall and London and into all the regions and cities of the United Kingdom to support ‘levelling up’.  This brings new challenges as do changes in working arrangements and the use of new technology. 

So how can we support you?

First and foremost, by doing our day job well – by providing assurance that recruitment into the Civil Service is done fairly and openly and that appointments are made on merit.

At the lower levels, recruitment is delegated to Departments and my team audit their practice annually. Broadly speaking, compliance with the ‘Recruitment Principles’ is pretty good, but we intend to put greater focus on persistent poor performance. 

As a regulator we don’t have the power to sanction but we can make sure that our findings are taken seriously and that action is taken to improve performance.

The annual performance review of Permanent Secretaries is undertaken by the Lead Non Executive of the Departmental Board. In future the Lead NED will include the Commission in their list of stakeholders to be consulted. Each Department’s compliance feedback – which covers both performance under the Recruitment Principles and Code complaints – will become part of their Permanent Secretary’s own performance review.

We are in the process of putting together our Annual Report which will be laid before parliament in the summer. In the last financial year Commissioners personally chaired 242 competitions for the most senior roles - ensuring recruitment panels test candidates’ skills and experience fairly, against the criteria, to identify the best overall candidate for a specific position. 

Recruitment panels for senior roles will usually include a key stakeholder or sector representative – or a departmental NED – to ensure external input.  

Decisions about salary, terms and conditions and location are for the department – our interest is in making sure that all candidates are treated fairly and compete on a level playing field. 

Getting it right – thinking about the job specification and how you describe the skills required, making sure the recruitment process is fair and open and getting a strong and diverse field of people to apply – these are the things that Commissioners will want to see. 

The government reform plan indicated that all civil service roles would become ‘external by default’ meaning that vacancies should be opened up to the wider employment market. 

I would expect a government announcement on how this might work in practice before too long. 

Up to now, the decision whether or not to open up a role to external competition was done on a case by case basis by departments. 

In our experience of chairing selection processes, civil servants do well in external competitions and regular testing of skills and capabilities can provide new and sometimes unexpected insights.

As our role relates to recruitment INTO the Civil Service, “External by default” brings the Commission in to oversee substantially more recruitment competitions.

The Commission is clear that this will not mean ‘light touch’ regulation – but the sheer numbers of appointments at this important ‘pipeline’ grade, mean the Commission will need to respond - and evolve its working model. 

We will want to see the data and hear from departments and Civil Service HR about how they will achieve this and what they hope to see in terms of outcomes as we develop our regulatory model. 

Like many regulators, we will look to deploy most resource on recruitment practice that poses greatest risk.   

For example, where a department has high compliance scores, the Commission may be able to move to an ‘earned autonomy’ position for some roles with.

We will be looking to pilot and test potential models as ‘External by Default’ takes shape in departments. But we will never lose sight of our statutory duty to ensure that selection is open, fair and on merit. 

So how do we support you?

As a Board we constantly ask ourselves whether we are striking the right balance between our regulatory duties and our desire to be flexible and pragmatic. We want the Civil Service to innovate and experiment. 

This challenge comes alive when we are asked to approve ‘exceptions’ to fair and open recruitment for specific reasons and for time limited periods. Departments tend to ask for them because they need to respond to an urgent and often unexpected set of circumstances.

In recent years the Board has encouraged the use of exceptions to help the Civil Service meet its wider ambition to become more representative of the country and to give ‘life chances to individuals from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds such as care leavers, veterans and ex-offenders. 

We strongly support the Civil Service’s ambition to be more diverse – including diversity of background, region, thought, ethnicity and gender.

Internal measures such as talent development programmes, temporary promotion, mentoring etc. are not within the Commission’s remit. But with our unique perspective across departments’ recruitment from chairing open competitions at senior levels and auditing processes across government, we are using our experience and influence to help departments deliver on their ambition to be more representative. 

Recently I have paused and reflected on the fact that the current cabinet is ethnically more diverse than the senior levels of the civil service. Dame Sharon White was the first black person to become a permanent secretary in 2013. Suma Chakrabarti served as the Perm Sec in the ministry of Justice from 2007 to 2012. I assumed things were beginning to change, but they have not.  It is not good enough for us talk about the need to change without being prepared to accept that this includes each and every one of us. 

The Commission is beginning a pilot– initially with MOJ – for ‘Pathways to Lead’ to develop potential leaders with backgrounds and skills currently under-represented in the workforce (for a time limited appointment) who may be able to bring in new thinking and innovative answers to intractable policy problems.  

We will be reviewing this pilot to see if it has wider application.

The successful “Going forward into employment” exception scheme which began as a pilot under Ian Watmore, my predecessor as First Civil Service Commissioner, is now offering over 1000 roles as life chance opportunities to veterans, care leavers and ex-offenders and others will move into Cabinet Office, with the Commission’s ongoing support. 

How do we challenge you?

If you have not yet done so, I really do encourage you to read the Commission’s recruitment principles. Intentionally they are principles – and not narrow Rules. 

They explain what we mean by “open, fair and on merit”. 

During the pandemic there has been a surge in using exceptions for appointments, and that is not surprising. But we need to get back to normal. Make strategic decisions and operate within the rules. 

We audit recruitment and highlight breaches because rules are important, but we also really want to encourage and support new ways of doing things. 

Hiring managers must think carefully about the skills and qualities they are looking for and spend time and effort to reach a strong and diverse field of candidates. Successful external candidates will need different kinds of support and induction than internal ones.

Our recruitment processes take too long. We know that we lose talented candidates who either drop out or take on other roles. This is wasteful for those who have applied and dropped out and for vacancy holders if don’t get the best people into post.

Together with departmental HR departments the Commission will want to look at ways of shortening the time taken from “decision to hire to someone being in post”. 

The Commission also hears appeals under the Civil Service Code. All civil servants should be familiar with the Code and new joiners need to have an awareness of the ethical expectations and the mechanisms in place to raise concerns. 

We hold online events and workshops and support departments’ work but embedding public service values is an ongoing task and is never quite “done”. 

The primary responsibility for this is within departments, as is the duty to resolve complaints. We only hear appeals once all internal avenues have been exhausted. 

The perfect outcome for the Commission is a system where all departments are responsive to complaints and address concerns appropriately, so that no one has the need to appeal to us. But if they do – we are here to help. 

The last six years have been particularly demanding and challenging and it is right for us to celebrate the Civil Service.

We in the Commission try to play our part in this celebration.

We recently launched the first “Commissioners Mark of Excellence” to showcase some of the excellent recruitment practice out there. The award will recognise outstanding innovation and commitment in the recruitment of diverse candidates across all grades into the Civil Service.

It champions diversity in its broadest sense, supports the Government’s priority of ‘levelling up’ as well as the Civil Service reform agenda of an innovative and skilled Civil Service. 

Along with the Cabinet Secretary, cross-government networks are endorsing and supporting this award. The winner – and those who are highly commended – will be announced in July and they will be entitled to use the excellence kitemark on their advertising for a year.

One of the great things about being a Commissioner, is that we have a unique perspective right across Whitehall. 

We see the range of tough and demanding jobs which have to be filled. We see commitment and determination to do what is right. 

There are changes ahead both for those working in Whitehall and for us as a regulator. 

As long as we remember that we play a vital part in making democracy work and that we have a shared commitment to public service, I know we can do it! 

Thank you – I’m very happy to take any questions.

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