Reducing the Fast Stream to two years? No, Minister!

Some of you may have spotted the article in CSW that states Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude wants to reduce the length Fast Streamers spend on the programme from four to two years. I think this is a bad idea.

For those of you not familiar, the Civil Service Fast Stream is the established (but by no means the only) route into the civil service for university graduates. I say “established” because it’s the one that is managed centrally. As a graduate, I joined the civil service at a lower administrative grade (AO for those of you familiar with grades) and spent a couple of years there ‘learning my trade’ before applying and subsequently getting appointed to the Fast Stream (see here) through the ‘in-service’ route. (For discussions on the application process, have a look at what some candidates are saying on The Student Room’s public sector boards).

The four years of the programme is the generally-accepted time period at which the civil service expects most candidates to progress from being unpolished diamonds to Grade 7/team leader material. That’s not to say people don’t get promoted far sooner. Those who have previous experience in other sectors (i.e. have not come straight out of university) can make rapid progress through the ranks. You are not tied to being on the Fast Stream for four years. In anycase, the year-on-year pay rises are significant, and you have a dedicated training budget for all the courses that go with the programme.

Some may ask why the civil service should be any different to any other large organisation that has a graduate programme of a shorter period. The answer is simple: Whitehall is not like a business – as Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee wrote for the Institute for Government. [Thank you Gus Friar for picking up the mistake!] The delivery of public services is a damn sight more complex than trying to hit the bottom line as in business. You have to manage conflicting priorities often in the full gaze of the media and the public while having to deal with delivering ‘outcomes’ (“targets” is a bad word) that are often very hazy or are dependent on the co-operation of other organisations that is not always forthcoming.

The range of skills and knowledge you are expected to pick up is also significant. It’s one thing becoming skilled up in all things policy. It’s quite another to learn about the intricacies of managing a multi-million-pound budget, the legal constraints and implications of what you are proposing/working on as well as trying to keep multiple stakeholders happy – knowing that one bad move could have them screaming to the press about how horrible you/your policies are. And that’s before you’ve even considered the politicians, the reshuffles and accountability to Parliament. In a large company you are not subject to the level of public scrutiny that you are in Whitehall. You don’t have the monthly public grilling of departmental question time or the regular select committee hearings. You don’t have to deal with regular ministerial correspondence where, amongst other things you have to ensure that what you are coming out with for ministers is consistent with the rest of Whitehall.

In order to get sufficient experience of all of these things, Fast Streamers need to have a variety of placements. During my time, there was a big push for getting ‘delivery’ experience. At the time there was not nearly the level of co-ordination between the Fast Stream and other public sector graduate programmes to facilitate this. One of the striking findings I asked of my former director who went into local government on secondment was what he’d have done differently as my director of our policy unit given what he now knows of local government. His insights showed just how important spending time outside of Whitehall is for Fast Streamers – of which he was one. The Fast Stream is an ideal programme to structure such secondments out of Whitehall into a graduate programme – as well as allowing people from local government, the public and private sector to move into Whitehall back the other way. The insights of people from both business and the voluntary sector I found helped move things along, improve ways of working (in the softer sense, not in the ‘bring in consultants to sort things out’ sense) and manage external partners because they understood the sorts of pressures they faced in a manner that someone who had spent their entire career in the civil service might not.

Yes, improve the Fast Stream programme – it needs it. But reducing the time people spend on it from four to two years is not the way to go about it.

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3 Responses to Reducing the Fast Stream to two years? No, Minister!

  1. Gus Friar says:

    Bernard Jenkin chairs the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC).
    Even Homer nodded occasionally!

  2. patrick King says:

    The analysis cited above is sound.

    What follows highlights a credible corporate risk to government I and my colleagues are witnessing as a direct result of the “brain drain” and “fast access” within our civil service.

    During a recent visit to a large agency (10,000+ staff) to discuss general ideas around records management, processes and workflow. Agency people explained to me how business processes and critical documents are currently stored and managed, I asked how they capture the knowledge of the business i.e. where stuff is, who owns what, how does this and that process work, how is policy devised and executed, and what are the dependencies. They then alluded that currently, almost all the valuable intellectual knowledge and facts are in senior and middle ranking managers heads or in individual filing systems (paper or digital) owned and controlled by aforementioned managers with no formal policies or mechanisms to securely store, integrate, collaborate or manage the collective corporate knowledge. They also explained that some critical information is stored in a computer storage file system but without any simple end-user capability to search, update, collaborate or otherwise meaningfully engage with the content.

    It seems this situation is compounded by the fact that this collective corporate knowledge is in the heads of many key senior people (most of whom came up through the ranks) who are now approaching the end of their careers and/or leaving the service due to the cuts. The majority of new people taking up senior management and executive posts over recent years are from outside their respective organisation, often fast-track sourced and therefore do not enjoy the “embedded collective knowledge” of decades of working practice. I have spoken to other public sector directors and service partners and they seem to concur that this is an issue.

    I wonder what steps Cabinet Office are taking to address this lamentable situation?

  3. Mark Upton says:

    I would disagree. It is not the length of the programme rather its quality and its relationship with the so called mainstream of the Whitehall Civil Service that matters. Moving so called Fast Streamers around Whitehall is a welcome step. But they need to go much further.
    The current scheme is poor. It has long turned out Civil Servants with a narrow experience of life and work that lack any emotional intelligence going forward in their careers. They all but expect to get to Deputy Director (they don’t even think of the automatic promotion to Grade 7) within five years. When they do, they do considerable damage to departments, their staff and, in indeed, public life given their influence.
    When compared with say the Graduate scheme in local government the Civil Service scheme is in the dark ages.
    It all goes to produce an apartheid system in Government departments with the rest of the staff being treated as second class citizens even on terms and conditions, never mind at promotion boards and in the day to day. On this point, more focus should be place on a first class system to train and developed civil servants, not just white, middle class, students of economics, politics and philosophy from Oxbridge.

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