When I spent 202 days in the jaws of civil service recruitment

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I have told this story many times, receiving some varied reactions ranging from the entertained to the shocked and the resigned. It’s time to put it in writing.

In late 2014, I saw an interesting job advert for a lead technologist position at the Department of Health. The advert sounded like a great match for me: leadership on data policy and strategy for the development of health-related digital services. It was a match made in heaven. The job linked the department to GDS, and had enough keywords in the job description and person specification that I decided to apply. The procedure had been outsourced to a notorious big company which I won’t be naming (but bear this in mind as you read the rest).

One feature of the job was its senior grade: specifically, it was at SCS1 level, which is the most junior of the 4 grades that make up the UK Senior Civil Service. I had never considered working for the civil service, and in general I was quite settled in my job in higher education. At the time, however, I had been advising the Cabinet Office as a member of the Open Data User Group, and I had developed a good idea of how the civil service operates. A SCS1-level job came with good promises of independence and the ability to set out an interesting direction for the departmental technology strategy, being senior civil service roles more about vision, strategy, and leadership, than they are about nitty-gritty management.

A few weeks later, I received news that I had been shortlisted, and I was given the details of the following steps and an internal contact at the department for all queries. For those who have never experienced it, the procedure has some peculiar aspects. At senior level, there is a pre-interview leadership assessment made up of two parts: the first is a set of online psychometric tests; the second is a 2-hour interview with a psychologist, during which the results of the tests are discussed. The goal of the assessment is to ascertain whether the candidate will make a good leader, or if they have some character flaws that make it unsuitable to lead. I wonder if anyone was ever rejected because of the psychological assessment, and what was the reason. The assessment is then followed, generally on a different day, by a standard interview, and often the candidate is required to perform some task or give a short presentation.

Everything went relatively smoothly. I “passed” the online tests, and received quite a flattering commentary on them by the psychologist. We had a very engaging conversation about my strengths and weaknesses. I even managed to make a funny gaffe, which was then picked up by the panel in a semi-jokingly way, allowing me to further my pitch in a lighthearted manner. During the interview I had to give a presentation — without slides, so it was more akin to a short speech — about my views on the future of the civil service. The atmosphere was cordial, and the panel politely challenged me with interesting questions. I left the room satisfied of having done my best, and thinking “these would be great people to work with”. So far so good. The interview happened in mid-December and, despite the panel’s promises that the outcome would be known before the Christmas break, I expected to hear around early January.

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And then… nothing happened, for a long time. I would not say the outcome of this interview was top of my worries, but after a while I started asking myself what was going on. It was a couple of months later that I received a weird call from the human resources representative on the panel. The call lasted several minutes and felt somehow civil-service-y and convoluted, but ultimately it was about asking me one question: “are you still interested in the job, and would you be able to cope with a bit of a wait?” — the sort of question which can only be answered with a “yes”. I was not in a rush anyway so I thanked for the call and asked to be kept in the loop about any development. Some weeks later, I received another call, from a different member of staff (this time, someone who was not a member of the panel), asking pretty much the same question. I cannot swear by it as I have no notes from the time, but I seem to remember the number of calls all asking for the same thing was not limited to just two.

After several months, I decided to send an e-mail to the original departmental contact I had been given: the autoreply told me they had moved on from the Department; an e-mail to the HR representative went unresponded (I was later told they had left, too). It was only then that I decided to contact the company that had been running — at least on paper — the procedure. When I say “on paper” I am not exaggerating: the reply I received can be summarised as “we are not running this procedure, but will highlight it with our client”. I had a conversation with an internal contact at the department. I discreetly asked not for insider information, but simply to bring the situation to the attention of whoever was then in charge of things. Finally I received an answer: application unsuccessful. I counted the days elapsed from the interview: a whopping total of 202.

Meanwhile, unofficially and informally, I had heard news on why I had been unsuccessful. In fact, the opposite seemed to be true: the calls proved the ongoing interest in me, but the position had at one point disappeared because of re-organisation and budget constraints (i.e. cut). Some months later, I saw “parts” of this job re-advertised on a lower level and on a fixed term basis (the original position was permanent). At that stage, I decided this role, in its new form, was no longer for me and by then things had moved on.

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I certainly found this experience frustrating, but also very intriguing for the number of issues it presented. The first and obvious reflection is about procurement. I suppose using an external contractor to run the recruitment procedure cost money, and it certainly did with this specific company. Why were they used, when they did very little other than running the procedure on their own website? At the time the Civil Service Jobs website was already up and running at a level comparable with the one offered by the contractor’s website. Why wasn’t it used instead, given the lack of support offered by the contractor? Note: I am not against the use of effective recruiters by the civil service (and I know a couple who are really good and bring great value both to the employer and the candidates), but in this specific case it seemed an odd choice.

This story also draws attention to an organizational issue. A question I’ve often asked myself is: how could the department possibly advertise a permanent job, find the money to outsource the procedure, only to have it fail so quickly? Knowing how long it takes to arrange these things, the fact that a few weeks after the interview the whole procedure was brought to a halt by re-organisation or cuts sounds incredible. I haven’t managed to find an explanation other than “there was a lot of confusion and high levels of staff turnout”. Staff turnout was evident from the two replies I received, but this was a symptom of something going wrong rather than an explanation.

Then there is a matter of personal respect for candidates. As I said, I was not in a rush and had plenty of time to plan for an eventual move. A different candidate might have been without a job, or they might have been on a fixed-term contract. This sort of time scale is a massive risk, if you think about it, and not just for the candidates — it is for the employer too, with prospective applicants self-selecting if they can find something better and quicker. Of course, the converse would have been terrible: if the job could disappear only a few weeks after the interview, what prevented it from disappearing a few weeks after an offer was made? It would have been quite a bad situation to be in, having resigned from the current job to find out the position had disappeared.

The reactions when I tell this story are remarkable. I have told this story a number of times, and invariably I receive one of two categories of comments. Those who work in the private sector find it unacceptable, very bad practice, and a way to miss on the best candidates; those who work in the public sector, however, shrug it off by saying “well, it’s very common”. One friend working for a ministerial department once said “I had to wait 9 months after my interview”. If the outsourcing situation could do with some fixes, the approach to recruitment is probably something that could do with some more SLAs. As far as I am aware of, things haven’t changed much in the past 3 year, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

The re-advertisement of the job on a lower grade and on a fixed-term contract was not a great sign either. I believe that some jobs, especially those dealing with strategy, should be permanent or at least be in place for 5 years. A 2-year fixed-term post holder will not have enough time to establish his or her authority, yet alone to address the issues. I believe that the “high turnover” is partly caused by this attitude. Although we all agree that no job is forever, and that often a pair of fresh eyes can bring good things to any position, I think there is a threshold under which you end up having too much turnover. In this case, it felt that the job had become less important in the grand strategy of the department. Incidentally, I have witnessed the results of this turnover on the other side, when the Open Data User Group had the help of relationship managers. They were great individuals, but their constant moving on and replacement caused massive delays and a lack of leveraging power on their end missions.

Here we go. I haven’t moved to the civil service after that 202 days ride, and that experience isn’t particularly encouraging should I decide to apply again. Three years later, hearing about the 202 days still triggers an not-so-surprised, non-outraged reaction from my friends in the civil service. Doesn’t this speak volumes on there still being some fundamental problem that needs to be addressed? It is important that the civil service does so: it already struggles to compete with the private sector on salary and career prospects; if it makes life difficult to applicants, it will only damage itself.


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