Dear PPMA friends
Most of us will be back at work now and getting stuck into our agenda for the year ahead. To get you in the mood, last Saturday we published the first part of a two part blog post written by our President, Karen Grave. In it she shares her thoughts on Dominic Cummings blog and below (part 2), she continues her response. To give you a flavour of some of her points, here’s a quick extract “The ‘By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around No 10 to be on the lookout for such people,’ really.does.not.cut.it, when you are an unelected advisor about to embark on a profoundly important initiative. Grabbing a small group of smart young things and driving them to work in an extreme environment is what those of us who spent a good part of their professional careers working in Big 5 organisations know as swinging your dick leadership.”
We hope you find it an interesting and thought proving read!
Just as there is some good there is plenty of bad and ugly. And the bad and ugly absolutely needs a calm response.
It’s worth saying at the top that is that it is perfectly possible to challenge someone in the spirit of sharing ideas without being resistant to change. In fact, providing challenge and advice – no matter how inconvenient it may be – is a key part of the role of a civil servant.
My reading of Dominic’s blog is that the core premise of this a super-bright cohort of unusual, young people is that they will, through working with interesting AI, data science, economic theory and modelling, policy development, computational and communication theory, deliver the civil service we need to take us into a post Brexit future. There is the implication that this will be quicker, will work centrally and will provide oversight/instruction to other departments on what to do etc. And as best I can tell fantastic project management will get us there.
There’s a lot in there obviously, so I have tried to stick to some key observations relating to the first project of “improving the people and skills already here (his words)”.
The bad and the ugly…
For me the most obvious areas of bad and ugly are as follows:
- The sweeping assumptions made about key workforce issues with absolutely no evidence cited
- the apparent lack of appreciation that recruiting super smart young people may in fact be directly or indirectly discriminating and illegal
- the assertion that brains and temperament smash seniority and experience in many aspects of government, again with no supporting data
- the apparent lack of understanding why ‘people in SW1 talk about diversity’.
Before you tackle these points, you have to ask the basic question which is – what does Civil Service mean to Dominic Cummings? The notion that public service reform – which we’ve been engaged with for decades now – could just be limited to Central Government makes no sense.
Civil Service employees do not exist in splendid isolation in Whitehall. The breadth of services public servants provide is staggering and whilst, decisions made about the breadth of those services are made in and with Whitehall, they are executed locally.
Radical, relevant or plain discriminatory…
The idea of exploring ideas at the margin (in the sense that they’re known to a very small number of people) to create new futures, is entirely sensible. Scientists have been doing for centuries and this need to explore and discover is a mark of society’s progress.
The idea of using fabulously smart people to look at physics papers such as Early warning signals for critical transitions in a thermoacoustic system, and see how it could be applied to areas from finance to epidemics, is at the very least interesting. BUT herein lies the issue. The advert is for fabulously smart young people who can work in an extreme environment.
Even without the blah blah of Diversity crap, advertising for super smart young people is profoundly discriminatory – there is no evidence available that I know of that says the only people who can think ideas at the margin are straight out of university.
It’s also not clear to me how a narrow focus on AI, data science and economics is going to deliver change in public policy and delivery. How will it deliver an already late 10-year social care strategy, address a short and medium term need for key public service professionals, deliver a proportionate-to-need local government finance settlement and so on?
Where are the neuroscientists, behavioural economists, social historians, anthropologists, poets, futurologists, climate scientist and so on? There are multitudes of organisations already looking at the present and the future. The notion that this can be done in Number 10 and issued out across government is entirely at odds with the Government’s commitment to localism and devolution for one thing. But even if you bought the idea that you need a Number 10 unit thinking big, then where is the broad representation that you would need if you honestly want to define, shape and make the breadth and depth of change that you think will enable a transformed country?
Radicalism without relevance is a costly vanity project.
Past imperfect, current imperfect, future perfect?
It is said that one of the most toxic outcomes of the last 3 years Brexit debate is the dreadful state of our politics. I don’t agree entirely.
Brexit has been used as a lightning rod for lots of issues that have been bubbling for years without successful resolution. From a workforce perspective we might blame Brexit for a loss in our workforce supply chain. However, if we are really honest, we have been talking about addressing workforce demand and supply side challenges for the past twenty years at least.
Brexit has also been blamed for a rising tide of intolerance, hostility and polarisation. Those of us working in public service will recognise that this polarisation has been happening over a much longer period of time. Polarisation in social outcomes, educational experience, delivery of health care, work opportunities, social care etc has been around for a very long time.
If we don’t reconcile the challenges that public servants are dealing with in our present, a group of super smart people (whether old, young or middle aged for that matter) thinking about the future won’t get very far if the shaky foundations of the present aren’t addressed.
‘In many aspects of government, as in the tech world and investing, brains and temperament smash experience and seniority out of the park’.
Those of us in HR & OD are very familiar with much of the toxic employee relations issues that the tech world and investing have found in the public domain over the past few years. Argue what you like about the relative merits of the tech world and investing business models, their context is profoundly different from the world of public services.
There are lessons we can learn from other sectors and public services are actually good at identifying learning from the outside. The challenge is how you apply learning across a system that is enormous and pervasive. That’s the work that’s really hard but The Behavioural Insights team has a damned good record in this field.
You can’t deny that there are instances where seniority and experience has proved a blocker to good ideas in public services. There are many reasons for that – and some of them in fact come from political considerations outwith the control of public servants.
However, experience is a critical factor in assessing where we are and understanding where we need to go. Seniority cannot be discounted too. Seniority usually imposes a set of responsibilities that those in other parts of the organisation don’t have.
If I am right in reading seniority as ‘leadership’, then we already have several tonnes of research, models and practice in the field. One of my particular favourites is the Engaging Leadership model. We know what a critical impact leadership has on employee engagement, wellbeing and productivity, but too often implementing these models etc, is avoided, ignored or seen as an overhead or a nice to have.
And in truth if you are under profound budget pressures as a CEO and are struggling to deliver statutory services, then you are going to think twice and thrice (at least) about investing spend on developing your workforce. The reality is that our senior leaders are wrestling with – and have been for years, decisions that have no good outcomes.
Shock and awe – the Bonfire of Human Resources…
Are you ready to burn?
It would be so easy to rise to the bait on this and the juvenile comments about diversity. Sometimes shock and awe is a deliberate tactic to generate ideas and it can be very effective. But shock and awe can also be a distraction – science increasingly is delivering insights on the cost of incivility.
There is no question that we can be the author of our own misfortune and we still have areas to improve. But the idea that HR is a blocker for its own sake is an ignorant and dangerous trope. Public service HR & OD professionals have been grappling with structural differences that prevent us from working together as effectively across the sector.
There are a number of areas that need to be tackled and I’ll be talking about these in future blogs. These are:
- Who needs improving? If we are serious about delivering effective government and you care about improving the decision-making progress, then you cannot just look at public servants. We need to look at the professional development of national and locally elected politicians and SPADs.
- The blah blah of diversity. To state the obvious, HR & OD professionals have to ensure their organisations meet their obligations under the Equality Act 2010. That is obvious and right. But it is time in my view to have a conversation about the Act and the balance between rights of the individual and the effective running of our organisations.
- Harmonising job structures across public services. One of the aspects of the work we do with HPMA and UHR that I am most proud of is our collective desire to build networks for HR & OD professionals across the breadth of public service organisations. There is so much we can learn from each other, but the structural differences across the sectors mean that we are often competing with each for the same resources OR even worse, there are disincentives for people to move across sectors. We have to address that.
- A genuine change in the nature of our political debate. Why does that matter to a HR & OD professional? Well to quote a famous idiom “the fish rots from the head”. For the first time in over a decade a majority government was elected. I agree with much of the newspaper analysis post-election that this feels seismic, even more so given Brexit will happen. With a seismic opportunity comes a seismic responsibility. How we create safe spaces so that people across the political spectrum speak to each other about matters of policy is critical to how effectively public services can respond.
Blaming an institution or a part of an institution for challenges that they don’t own entirely isn’t clever, it won’t solve genuine challenges, it won’t unite.
I’ve tried throughout my response to Dominic’s blog to be rational and reasonable. I hope I have achieved that in some parts. But I am not going to bother being rational with my final observation.
A good leader doesn’t need to know all the answers to everything – being able to say ‘I don’t have the answers to everything, but I can find out’ is an authentic, credible and coherent response. But what you do hope to see in a leader is at least a basic recognition that a leader understands the scope and nature of the challenge.
The “By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around No 10 to be on the lookout for such people.” really.does.not.cut.it, when you are an unelected advisor about to embark on a profoundly important initiative. Grabbing a small group of smart young things and driving them to work in an extreme environment is what those of us who spent a good part of their professional careers working in Big 5 organisations know as swinging your dick leadership.
It’s not terribly effective.