I’ve been waiting for a bit of water to flow under the bridge before writing this blogpost mainly for the benefit of anyone looking to apply for the Civil Service Fast Stream – the main graduate entry programme for the UK civil service. This aligns with much of the advice I and others have given on The Student Room’s Public Sector Careers Boards. The Fast Stream was one of the few areas to be exempted from the recruitment freeze across the civil service. Those of you interested in equalities issues in the public sector may want to scrutinise the data for Fast Stream recruitment for 2009 & 2010 here, and for 2000-2008 here. At this stage I should also point out there is a similar highly regarded scheme for graduates looking for careers in local government.
As a former FDA union rep for those on the Fast Stream, I attended meetings with Cabinet Office to try and persuade them to take specific actions to help improve the diversity of applicants applying for the Fast Stream. My main idea was to follow the data on diversity statistics held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency – targeting their outreach programmes at those universities that scored highly on the various indicators (such as age, gender, ethnicity, schooling, family history of university application etc) that the civil service desired to see improvements in. I also pointed out that from my own anecdotal experience if living in Cambridge and being a part-time post-graduate student at Anglia Ruskin University, it was far more difficult to persuade ARU students to go to events hosted at Cambridge University’s colleges than the other way around. Thus would it not make more sense to host Fast Stream outreach events at the “new” universities (that tend to have more students from more diverse backgrounds) with students from more established universities open to attend as well, than vice-versa? Have a look at the statistics to see if you have noticed any change in the institutions that Cabinet Office is targeting. If there has been little change, then what Dame Anne Begg said in the Commons on 12 January in the Parliamentary Representation debate also applies for the Fast Stream: “We do not get the best person for the job if the best person does not even apply for it.”
The Fast Stream is not without its critics – and understandably so. I was also a member of the PCS Union throughout my career as a civil servant – elected as a branch secretary during my pre-Fast Stream days where I served for about 15 months before I transferred to London. (After the transfer, I kept my PCS membership as well as joining the FDA on the grounds that the FDA negotiated my terms and conditions but I did not want to leave what I saw as my big ‘work family’ that I had put a lot of effort into supporting as a rep). It was in 2010 that the PCS Union adopted a policy position calling for the scrapping of the Fast Stream programme on the grounds that it is
“…divisive and elitist. This scheme provides a fast track into government departments for the chosen few at the expense of others. It has succeeded in maintaining the white middle class domination of the Senior Civil service and restricting access to working class candidates.” [See motion A32]
The pragmatist in me was saddened but not surprised by the vote. While it’s extremely unlikely that the programme will be scrapped, it should send a clear message to Cabinet Office and to departments that there is clear friction between a sizeable number of fast streamers and non-fast streamers, and that part of that friction is being caused by the disproportionate number of people applying from more privileged backgrounds. Part of it I think also stems from a lack of understanding of the assessment processes by non-fast stream civil servants – as well as the existence of the in-service Fast Stream that I went through, which is a non-graduate route into the Fast Stream. My take is that the more diverse an intake the Fast Stream has, the more enriched it will become as a network.
In terms of the assessment process, this is one area that I do have confidence in. I’m not going to go into detail as to what I did – that’s the Cabinet Office’s call to decide what information they release about who has to do what. For the in-service process, my line manager at the time had to write a very detailed reference with comments on my potential across the key skills areas concerned. That had to be approved and signed off by both my head of HR and by the head of my organisation before my department even looked at my application. Prior to that, I had to have satisfactorily passed my probation period as a new entrant to the civil service back in 2004. (Something that normally takes up to a year). i.e. you can’t flounce into a very junior post and say “Put me forward for the Fast Stream”. For me, I was in the civil service for nearly 2 years before I put my application forward. At the time, the organisation I was with was going through a major ‘restructuring’ which saw the culling of lots of junior administrative staff – leaving me without a stable role following the zapping of my role.
Throughout 2006 I applied for promotion after promotion – mainly down in London. Emotionally I had reached the stage where I felt that in order to ‘grow’ as a person and to progress my career, London was where I needed to be. Every single kickback, failed interview and rejection was one that I took personally, yet at the same time there was this little voice inside me that was saying it was all happening for a reason. It was a tiny little ray of light, a glimmer of hope in what was at the time a sea of darkness as far as things seemed to be going at the time.
After 9 months of rejections, nothing further on the horizon and things looking particularly shaking in terms of job stability (in particular as a number of friends and colleagues were in the process of losing theirs through the redundancy/retirement processes), I slumped back into a stint with a lovely small team doing a job that I knew I was never really cut out for – I just didn’t have the disposition for it. Time was running out and the only remaining application that was outstanding was the Fast Stream Assessment. As it turned out my name was put forward for the assessment centre, but unfortunately one of them clashed with a time I was scheduled to be in Austria on a summer school. They were non-negotiable about this. Turn up or have my application put back for a year. I could not afford that – career-wise, emotionally or financially. However, that also meant having to pay the costs of flying back from Vienna to London (at my own expense) halfway through the summer school in order to do that part of the test.
In one of the few acts of ‘courage’ (i.e. where I was really anxious about doing something but felt the fear and did it anyway, as opposed to wrestling bears with my bare hands, stopping a bank robbery with a few well-aimed kicks or rescuing the helpless from a burning building – that sort of thing), I took the view that paying for those flights would more than repay themselves if I got onto the Fast Stream, and if I didn’t…then I probably was not cut out for it anyway.
The day of the main assessment centre was just as surreal. I stayed overnight in a hotel rather than running the risk of trains messing up. My mindset at the time was to take as much ‘risk’ out of the day of the assessment centre as possible. I was lucky that in the evening the 2006 Amnesty International Secret Policeman’s Ball was on TV that evening, taking my mind of things.
The tasks that we were all set were incredibly intense…yet strangely enjoyable. It was one of those occasions that you knew you were being tested and stretched but were really getting a lot out of it at the same time. The whole process covered five or six different activities and lasted for the whole day and was emotionally exhausting. At the end of all of the assessments a handful of us crashed out at one of the pubs near the Department for Transport’s HQ. I felt like a bit of a zombie. I had thrown everything I had at that assessment centre and came away knowing that the test was hard but fair, and that I had prepared and was properly prepared for it. I genuinely had no idea at the time whether I had passed or failed. What I did know was that I could not have given any more, prepared any more thoroughly or have performed any better on the day. If that wasn’t enough to pass then the reality would have been that I would not have been good enough for the Fast Stream.
Two weeks later I got the news that I had in fact passed. The sense of relief was something that I’ve only ever experienced on one occasion before (receiving my GCSE results) and on one occasion since (clearing my debts after leaving the civil service). The idea that I had made it through one of the most competitive assessment processes in the country was something that I don’t think ever quite sunk in. All of my fears about my future career and job stability evaporated on that news. I remember a real sense of both excitement and purpose at the time – remember that in all of this the economy was really booming and London itself was absolutely buzzing with activity – and I was now going to be part of all of that!
I’d love to say that the story had a “happily ever after” ending, but it didn’t. I didn’t go onto become one of the high flying senior civil servants treading the corridors of Cabinet Office or the Treasury (though I did get to go to both on various occasions). A large number of Fast Streamers decide for whatever reason that the scheme – and even the civil service is not for them. For me, my time on the Fast Stream was one where I grew up – and needed to. Personally I felt I needed more time in individual postings than the 6-12 months that is standard. My biggest achievements I felt was in the post that I was in for the longest, after I moved off of the Fast Stream. Lots of number-crunching, data and analysis while bouncing off of the expertise of talented people all reliant on the work of each other.
I worked with some of the most amazing and talented people I’ll probably ever meet. I got to see close up how policy is made, the dark arts of lobbyists in full flow, ministers from all of the three main parties, and even the current Prime Minister at first hand. I had a front row seat working on a bill going through all stages of Parliament. I spoke at conferences representing my then department to audiences both friendly and hostile. I had some major successes, I went to awe-inspiring places, I made some big mistakes and my fair share of failures too – but I learnt from them. It’s one of the reasons why I like to think that I’ll cut people some slack for genuine human error, while focussing in on what looks like systemic problems in large organisations that could have been avoided.
Ian Watmore of Cabinet Office was right to defend the civil service following criticism from parts of the private sector. David Cameron was wrong to tar so many civil servants as “enemies of enterprise” in his speech last year – obviously no one told him about the UKGovCamp gathering that I and some of the most forward-thinking public servants in the country had attended several weeks earlier. I’m going there again next weekend, meeting up with old friends while not having to worry about the constraints of being in the civil service as we seek to unleash the power of digital and social media across the wider public sector. Many of the people that attended last year were light years ahead of the rest of the country in this field, and I dare say many of the attendees next weekend will be too.
The event is sold out but lots of things will be live-tweeted and live-streamed, so if you are unable to attend, feel free to follow. You might learn something new that takes you somewhere that you didn’t even know existed.