Is the new Whitehall HR role senior enough?

26 Feb 2020 By Gary Cookson

The Cabinet Office is hiring a civil servant to oversee HR for special advisers, but they are unlikely to have enough authority to make an impact, says Gary Cookson

You’ll no doubt have seen this week’s news that the Cabinet Office is recruiting a civil servant to oversee HR policy for government ministers’ special advisers (known as spads). The role pays up to £60,000 a year and is intended to be high profile. It aims to address a range of people management issues that have stemmed from recent criticism of both the government and the civil service, with Dominic Cummings (pictured) leading the charge to get a wider range of skilled and influential people into the mix some months ago (his blog called for “data scientists, project managers [and] assorted weirdos”, and “genuine cognitive diversity”).

Despite attempts to make this look like a routine appointment, it clearly isn’t anything of the sort. That said, is it a bad thing?

The details available make it seem like a traditional HR role. Reading the job description, it sounds like it involves the kinds of things that many HR professionals consider their bread and butter. And yet, despite it needing someone to be qualified to CIPD Level 5, the position isn’t within an HR team – it’s within the propriety and ethics team, which to me speaks volumes about why the role is needed and its focus.

There doesn’t appear to be an existing HR team for that matter, at least from what can be gleaned from the advert. One has to wonder why this is. Leaving aside politics – as this clearly spans several governments and prime ministers – this seems like a job that ought to have been in place a few decades ago at least. 

I’m no expert on London weighting, but a salary of up to £60,000 in London is not what that amount means elsewhere. In many regions this might signify a reasonably senior role. But this clearly isn’t that.

I worked for a short time within civil service HR, and have lived to tell the tale. Grades are worn as a badge of identification and salary bands mean little compared to the grade itself. And I’ve also been badly bitten in the past by salary bands being advertised to ‘attract the right calibre of applicant’ when in fact the intention was to start everyone on the bottom of the salary scale. 

Knowing the civil service grades as I do, I’d class this as a middle management position – definitely equivalent to HR manager in many places, and to a senior HR business partner in others. But no more senior than that.

This seems like a role that needs to have more clout than the government is affording it, particularly given it appears to be born out of calls for tougher vetting procedures for Number 10 staff, following adviser Andrew Sabisky stepping down after comments he had made in the past about race and eugenics came to light. Indeed, problematic behaviour has been associated with ministers of all levels and political persuasions, and with their aides. If this HR position is really going to influence those people, I’d say it’s not senior enough.

Instead, this role appears to be buried deep within governmental structures. As such it may help clean up messes and sweep up after adventurous ministers, but is unlikely to have the necessary authority to shape the right culture, encourage the right behaviours and address any shortcomings.

That’s not to say it won’t do any good. The role itself is a valuable one, but to me this seems like a missed opportunity. 

The need is real. The intent is right. But the execution leaves something to be desired. And isn’t that a situation we have found ourselves in with so many government initiatives over recent decades?

Gary Cookson is director of Epic HR

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