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.