Episode 11: Sir Humphrey rebooted

Sir Humphrey and Me
6 min readApr 9, 2021

Yet if political change, as we’ve seen, is a constant in civil service life, how well has the organisation responded to the wider social, technological and cultural transformations we’ve seen over the last few decades? Has Sir Humphrey really had a 21st century makeover? And if so, to what end?

One of the delights of the civil service are its veteran members of staff, the gnarly survivors who’ve shrugged off the hardships, dodging and weaving their way through the passing decades, to look ahead tantalisingly at the well-deserved retirement within their grasp.

While the days of gold-plated pensions have gone, at least for the mere mortals outside of the hallowed ranks of the Senior Civil Service[1], the benefits are still good and job security is extremely high because getting sacked is almost impossible.

Committing murder, extreme violence or bestiality will just about do it, as long as someone can prove it happened in the department’s grounds. Anything less and you’re actually more likely to die before the relevant processes to facilitate your departure are complete.

For that reason, across its many departments, you’ll find people with 20, 30, even 40 years of service, all of varying levels of competence and seniority (not necessarily the same thing), but with a corporate memory stretching back deep into the 1980s. Their stories document the profound and necessary changes that have happened within the service over the last 30 years.

I recall a particularly entertaining old-timer describing a wonderful vignette of life in the Department of Health during the late 1980s: a portrait of policy officials dipping their cigarettes into ash trays emblazoned with the government crest, cheerfully drafting their next great interventions in support of the nation’s health, as a thick haze drifted across their offices.

Others recall, until surprisingly recently, the tradition of the ministerial drinks cabinet. This meant that if you were lucky enough to have a meeting scheduled for a Friday afternoon — or, in the case of some ministers, as early as Tuesday morning — you might be offered a snifter of sherry or a hearty glass of claret as you deliberated the latest policy snag or foul up.

All of this is gone, of course, a relic of a bygone time — not just in the civil service but across workplaces in general. The best you’re now likely to be offered in a ministerial meeting, as I was on countless occasions, is a glass of tepid water and perhaps a wizened tangerine or slimy grape that’s been festering in the minister’s fruit bowl.

So it’s wrong to say that Sir Humphrey is impervious to change. In my own relatively short career in Whitehall I saw lots of it.

Technologies changed, as we ditched the fax machines, first in favour of chunky blackberries and more recently smart phones.

Cultural norms changed as the expectation that men wore shirts and ties in all meetings relaxed and the prissy language of a much older bureaucracy started to slip and fade away.

People changed too as a younger, more digitally savvy generation of communicators started to arrive in Whitehall, armed with their selfie-sticks and millennium-steeped bravado.

But it is fair to say that more, much more, needs to happen if the civil service is to become a model employer for the 21st century.

The problem isn’t one of intent or ambition, for the civil service has plenty of that. The issue is a yawning gulf between what is said and done. Culture change is always hard, yes, and particularly so if those cultures have been baked in over many decades, as they have in the civil service.

But the civil service leadership talks big on things like equality, diversity and inclusion — and I’m afraid, looking back, it’s hard to see those words translating consistently into hard action.

Diversity is a case in point. You’ll sense that I’ve not got a great deal of time for Dominic Cummings (he has even less for me I’m sure), but on this I think he exposed some uncomfortable truths about the homogeneity of background and the propensity for group-think that still shapes Whitehall.

I shifted in my chair when I read of his description of a civil service dominated by “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers.” Mercifully, I haven’t a clue who Lacan is and don’t know any TV producers, but the barb still stung because it spoke to a fundamental truth about how mono-cultural the civil service remains.

Of course, the problem with this, as with much that Cummings does, is not so much the intent so much as the divisive and dogmatic way he chooses to execute it. The real issue for the civil service isn’t that there are too many Oxford arts graduates like me[2] floating around, so much as there isn’t the counterweight of people from other backgrounds across the service.

This isn’t for want of trying. The government communications profession, for example, has a whole raft of measures, including apprenticeships and paid internship programmes designed to encourage people from a much wider range of backgrounds into Whitehall. But these are not translating into sufficient diversity further up the management chain. Why?

One reason is the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to recruitment. Until recently, this was built around what was known as ‘competency-based assessment’, which meant that to apply for a role the candidate would have to fill in a 10 page form in which he or she would be asked to show how they demonstrate a bewildering range of competencies illustrated with examples from their previous working life.

These competencies included cryptic headings like “Seeing the Bigger Picture”, “Leading and Communicating” and “Changing and Improving”, which can be deciphered only by referring to a 40-page Competency Framework listing what each of these competencies should cover.

Then, during what is known internally as a ‘sifting exercise’, a candidate’s answers are assessed by a three-person panel against a 7-point grid where the candidate has to score a certain number of points to get an interview. If you’re lucky enough to get one, the interview will largely consist of a further set of questions based on other competencies: “Can you give me an example of when you have delivered at pace?” being an example. Thank heavens we never had to interview a postal worker.

Many problems arise from this. First, you have to be a certain type of person to go through the rigmarole of completing a civil service application form — the process is intimidating, infuriating and often daft in equal measure. Second, there is a very learnable knack to answering these questions which will enable you to guarantee an interview regardless of your actual ability. As a result, a high proportion of interviewees tend to be existing civil servants from other departments who know how the system works.

Worst of all, this approach utterly disempowers the recruiting manager, who has to sit in a panel of assessors watching powerlessly as talented outsiders fail and the usual suspects succeed as these rules are applied. And thus a system designed to unsure fairness and inclusivity actually entrenches advantage to those who know the rules and can play the game.[3]

The civil service will claim they’ve moved on from this. Indeed, shortly before I left, we were all given a briefing from a brisk and exhausted-looking HR lady on a new approach called strength-based assessment. The focus is now on people’s personal attributes and abilities rather than just competencies.

I’m sure it’s a small step in the right direction, but it still feels like exchanging one grid of requirements for another, without addressing the fundamental need for autonomy and common sense to be applied. Like so much the civil service does, this desire to control and micromanage a process in the name of fairness and transparency in practice achieves the exact opposite.

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Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service