Even the Civil Service needs expert help to find new leaders

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Article by Jim Dunton, published in Civil Service World HR Supplement, January 2020.

The civil service has a good record on diversity and inclusion, but like all good records it could be better. An ability to demonstrate ongoing improvement is in many ways the most important way to make sure departments are staffed – and led – by people who are truly reflective of the public they serve. 

Recruitment and leadership development consultancy GatenbySanderson works across public services, from education and health to government and not for profit, and is a trusted source of intelligence in these markets. Finding and assessing the right Senior Civil Service-level staff to fill key government roles makes up around 20% of its work.

Last year it found and placed more than 1,000 diverse SCS recruits for central government departments and agencies. With an increased focus upon building greater diversity within leadership teams - which can mean up to 10 suitable candidates with strong representation from under-represented groups for each role – it actually built up a talent pool of around 8,500 people for positions it was asked to help with.

In terms of its central government work, GatenbySanderson specialises in finding the right people for high-profile and politically sensitive roles across organisations including HM Revenue and Customs, Ministry of Justice, Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions. It has also recruited senior roles for the Houses of Parliament and currently works for over 45 departments, agencies and NDPBs that have a common desire to increase diversity.

Broadening the net

The firm, which describes itself as a “people intelligence business”, will often be asked, for example, to help government fill some of its most challenging roles – namely those jobs with particularly complex requirements in closely-scrutinised environments.

In such situations, there may not be an obvious structure from which to promote. Or, where there has traditionally been a pool from which appointees for a role have been drawn, reasons may exist why a different approach is required – and among those reasons could be a recognition that the field of candidates needs to be more diverse.

Michael Dobson, GatenbySanderson practice lead for central government, says the past few years have seen the growth of a more holistic approach to diversity and inclusion that is less about box-ticking and more about recognising the positive contribution individual candidates can make.

“Gender and ethnicity are what many people may think of first when we talk about diversity and inclusion, but diversity is also about the professional background that a particular candidate comes from and how their skills might bring value to the organisation,” he says.

“Some of our work involves getting departments to think about broadening their horizons in terms of the staff they are prepared to consider for a role. Diversity can be about your career background as well as your family background.”

In addition to a huge level of expertise within the recruitment sector, Dobson has personal experience to back this up. Although he has worked on SCS and non-executive roles across the civil service for more than five years, he has prior experience with some of the nation’s biggest FTSE firms and with start-ups – not an obvious development path for someone who started their career as a professional cricket player for Northampton CCC after a university sports scholarship.

Dobson tells CSW that one of the changes he has witnessed in central government during his time working with the sector is an increased level of openness towards thinking outside the box for appointments.

“There’s a growing recognition that people from different backgrounds and with different experiences can make a really positive contribution to an organisation,” he says. “It’s not a one-size fits-all situation.”

Indeed, such an approach could be seen as vital for a civil service that has set itself the goal of becoming the nation’s most inclusive employer.

Dobson notes that GatenbySanderson has developed a level of data expertise in relation to its appointments that allows it to demonstrate how well people from particular professional backgrounds have fared in new roles they have been placed in.

Such data, he says, is useful in discussions with departmental recruiters ahead of the brief for particular roles being finalised.

“It gives people confidence that it might be worth considering candidates who would not always have been their first considerations,” he says.

Another area where GatenbySanderson has shared its data expertise with the civil service is the “inclusive maturity scale” that it has created, which allows clients to properly asses their strengths and weaknesses in creating an inclusive culture and environment and identify areas for improvement in the process.

Talent pipeline

GatenbySanderson has drawn up bespoke recruitment and development strategies with a number of government departments and their agencies with a view to ensuring the right measures are in place to deal with their future leadership needs.

Jody Goldsworthy, executive director responsible for GatenbySanderson’s leadership and talent consultancy, points to work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (where 35% of successfully placed candidates across 37 appointments were women), and regulator the Nursing & Midwifery Council (where 25% of appointees made for one multi-appointment assignment identified as BAME), as examples of very focused partnership work for bodies with bespoke needs. But she could also point to her work with DWP, the DfE and NHS Leadership Academy.

Leadership development across a range of organisations has been a recurring feature in Goldsworthy’s decade-plus career in consultancy, and she has specialised in taking a psychology-based approach to leadership development.

One area in which she believes central government could improve its behaviour is by making better use of candidate data gathered as part of SCS recruitment processes for ongoing development work with appointees.

“By the time a candidate is selected and appointed for a senior leadership role in the civil service, they’ve been through a really rigorous process that has generated a lot of data about them and their own impressions of their development needs,” she says.

“This is going to include psychometric testing and the results of staff review exercises, and – with their consent – this information is a hugely valuable resource for addressing their ongoing development needs.

“This is something the Cabinet Office is aware of, and we are working with them on this, but I think more widely we should be looking to make even better use of the wealth of data that we learn from the recruitment process because it is to everyone’s advantage.”

Dobson and Goldsworthy are speaking to CSW on the day last month’s Westminster general election results emerged, revealing an 80-seat majority for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party.

While Dobson notes that the pre-election period impacted some departmental recruitment plans in cases where roles required signoff, the first December general election since 1923 did not freeze most of the recruitment processes for central government’s senior leadership needs.

“I think the election result has provided a degree of certainty that means 2020 will be a year in which the civil service can start to make strides in terms of SCS recruitment and development,” he says.