The Civil Service Fast Stream – is it right for you?


A post for potential applicants for one of the most competitive graduate recruitment schemes in the country

I’m putting this blogpost up because I’m getting quite a bit of site traffic from internet searches for the Civil Service Fast Stream – of which I was once on between 2006-2010. I also blogged about my experience of getting onto the Fast Stream through the ‘in-service’ route – which was more a reflection on a personal journey rather than what you have to go through.

I don’t intend using this post to cover how to do well in the various tests and assessments. What I had to go through back in 2006 will have evolved – not least because of the significant reforms being made to the civil service. The skills you were expected to demonstrate then may not be entirely in line with what is expected today. Today, you are far more likely to be expected to be social media savvy, to have much stronger quantitative analytical skills, and possibly even an understanding about all things private and voluntary sector. Society has changed significantly in that short period of time – as has the economic situation. The civil service used to do a significant amount of programme administration. These days, it does significantly less than before, as both the amount of money available and the political philosophy of the current administration point to a different direction.

Should I apply for it?

It depends what your values are. The big one for me is understanding the concept of public service – irrespective of what skills or political views you have. Simply because the role you have ultimately involves serving the public. Therefore in everything that you say and do, the public interest must be paramount and at the forefront. Sometimes that means delivering bad news to someone, or choosing the more difficult option that involves more & harder work than the easier route out – and sometimes even taking a personal reputation hit too.

A number of people have often asked me about the high profile departments – especially the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). The problem I have had with many people is that the FCO is all-too-often the be-all and end-all. It’s the FCO or nothing. A mindset I find that is incompatible with public service. Yes, it is wonderful to have a solid career aspiration or target, but don’t go into this with a mindset that you have one direct shot at getting there, and that all of your dreams will be fulfilled upon getting there. It won’t. At least get a feel for the career skills and experiences you will need – and also what you would like to do assuming you achieve your aspirations. One of the hardest lessons I learnt in life was spending 18 months working my socks off to get into a highly sought-after state sixth form college – only to find I had no idea what to do when I got there. It was a piece of advice that came up almost a decade later at a training course where a former civil servant said very clearly that if you have a career aspiration, make sure you know what you are going to do should you achieve it.

“Yeah Pooffles – how do I pass this test then?”

I’m not going to tell you that – not least because I don’t know what’s in it. What I have a reasonable amount of faith in is the rigorousness of the assessment process. As I stated in my previous blogpost, I knew that the assessment centre I faced had tested me in a manner I had not been tested before, and that in terms of preparation there was nothing else I could have done better. Asking for advice, seeking knowledge, broadening work experience and life experiences…this really was my best shot. At the end of the assessment I had the feeling that a) if I had failed it then I genuinely was not good enough for the Fast Stream, but that b) I had this little inkling that I might have made it.

Adopt some of the positive cultures of social media world

Should you get onto the Fast Stream, chances are you will have had experiences of social media world that many in the civil service will not have had. For those of you that have recently graduated, you will have grown up with social media as the norm, where as those who you may find yourselves working with will have seen this phenomenon emerge in their working life that – as far as work is concerned – more of a threat than an opportunity. I see this regularly in organisations as they attempt misguided actions to shut down social media access to staff with the mindset that doing so will reduce risks. Quite the opposite.

There is also a significant risk for recent graduates regarding social media too – not least because changing organisational cultures towards social media is like turning around an oil tanker. The Government Digital Service made a start with the social media guidance published in May 2012. I was one of the external contributors (hence the mention of Puffles in that link) – which in part stemmed from blogposts such as What are the rules of social media for public sector workers? where I publicly called for Cabinet Office to issue such guidance, and my thoughts on what should be in that guidance following the announcement that Cabinet Office were going to put together new guidance. You need to ask yourselves what you want to do with existing accounts – such as your Facebook pages. Will you want to change your privacy settings and reduce the number of ‘friends’ that you have? Will you want to shut down and restart entirely, reflecting changing life circumstances? This is what I did with Facebook earlier this year.

In terms of adopting the positive cultures, the Government Digital Service (GDS) are exemplary in this. No, they didn’t pay me to say that. I also give Whitehall departments a good kicking when they deserve it – such as this shocker from DWP. You must be absolutely vigilant over any possible risk around political impartiality. Don’t do what DWP did with social media. If you do and Puffles finds out, you’ll get a kicking. If you use it really well for the benefit of the public, Puffles will praise you to the hilt. In the case of the GDS, they ‘crowd source’ their problems on a regular basis. They scope a very specific and measurable (apolitical) problem and invite contributions from people. This is exactly what they did with the social media guidance – but they turned the problem on its head. Rather than asking “What should be in it?” they asked “What shouldn’t be in it?”

They also understood that content is king – and that so long as the content and tone of conversation is constructive, it doesn’t really matter what someone chooses to brand themselves as. Hence inviting Puffles to join proceedings at one gathering – No. Really. Hence why it can be useful to engage with such ‘social media phenomena’ where they exist in your individual policy or work areas. Just make sure they stick to the rules of engagement and general politeness that you will have set out in advance…you will have set them out in advance, won’t you? There are risks with almost everything that you do, but have you taken reasonable steps to mitigate them? When I launched Puffles onto Twitter I tipped off two very senior civil servants that they had a baby dragon fairy flying around, but had taken the reasonable precaution of having Puffles’ House Rules published – & sticking to them. Remember that this was around the time of Baskers-gate (Sarah is a good friend of mine) and of NakedCServant. In the 18-24 months since then, much in social media world has evolved in terms of cultures & conventions. Back then, the culture on something as basic as retweeting was not set in stone. Hence Puffles’ House Rule 3 – I’ve lost count the number of times Puffles has had to refer people to it – or rather: *Puffles (*points*) to House Rule no.3* to shut down the point raised.

Don’t be afraid to learn, don’t be afraid to make genuine mistakes – but learn from the latter

One of my mistakes is in Hansard. Interestingly enough, the person I gave the wrong piece of advice to when this happened is now a follower of Puffles! For those of you who have been through the ‘great school, top college, oxbridge’ route of life, chances are you’ve not crashed and burned in a really big way – i.e. in a manner that had real consequences. One of the most difficult experiences in life when you’ve been brought up in a highly competitive culture (that you have been hitherto very successful at) is coping with failure. The Collinson Grant report into the FCO in 2005 makes for particularly eye-watering reading. One of the comments made at the time was that the FCO recruited very talented people – but people who had never experienced failure. Therefore a culture developed within it that did not know when to cut its losses. Programmes that should have been closed earlier were allowed to continue – leading to even greater losses further down the line.

For further debate and discussion…


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