GDS boss: Digital requires shake-up of civil service grade structure

The head of the Government Digital Service is drawing up plans for a rethink of the civil service’s grade structure, in a bid to help Whitehall better retain staff with much-sought-after digital, data and technology skills.

GDS was set up in the last parliament to change the way government delivers online services — including bringing all government websites under the GOV.UK domain — and shake up the state’s relationship with big tech suppliers.

Since the election, GDS has put an emphasis on building digital capability in departments themselves, but a recent report by the independent Senior Salaries Review Body highlighted ongoing concern, including from cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, about the civil service’s ability to attract and then hold on to key digital and commercial staff under the tight pay constraints set by the Treasury.

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Speaking at the Tech UK Public Services Conference in London’s Shoreditch on Tuesday, Stephen Foreshew-Cain — who last year took on the job of executive director at GDS — said one of his main priorities for the future of government was to ensure the civil service was “hiring the right people” and “making sure they stay” in government.

But he told PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World that this would require a challenge to some of the “foundational principles” governing how the civil service values staff through its grade system — and he confirmed that work was ongoing which could potentially allow those with digital skills to sit outside of the traditional hierarchy.

The GDS boss said there had been “a hierarchy of grades from those that deliver services to those that provide policy advice to ministers” since the 1854 Northcote-Travelyan report that formed the basis for the modern civil service.

“The fundamentals of the grade structure — although we’ve had variants by departments — really haven’t changed very much,” he said.

“One of the things I am currently looking at, in the space of digital skills, technology skills and data skills, is what is the right structure in a modern civil service? It’s time to question the foundational principles that most of our grade structure really is based upon today.

“That will lead us to designing, I think, a professional model that will have to adapt over time, that is designed to change over time, but will be able to work alongside the traditional model of the civil service. And it will allow us to recognise not just the skills we have, not just the seniority of the skills we have — and value them appropriately outside of the scale of operational delivery and policy advice — but value for them for what they are and what they do for us.

“And then we are going to have to have the conversation that says ‘How do we look to the market? What sector of the market are we going to be able to bring in?’”

When questioned on pay policy, civil service leaders often emphasise the non-financial rewards of working in the public sector, including flexible working and the diversity of officials when compared to the private sector. 

Foreshew-Cain said he was “very fortunate” to be “surrounded by people who are very passionate about the mission” at GDS, and stressed the need for civil service leaders to look beyond pay and be “making that sell to a generation that actually care the impact and importance of the work that they do”.

But he said that had to be “backed up by a professional model that allows people to grow and develop within the civil service — which we don’t have at the moment”.

The GDS chief added: “I do think we are going to get to a point where there is a conversation across government, and that includes Treasury, Cabinet Office and all the departments, where we say what is a consistent model for digital, data and technology skills in government and what do we do to attract, to retain and to develop those skills?’”

Foreshew-Cain’s comments come after Mayank Prakash, the director general of digital technology at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), voiced his own concerns about about his department’s grade-led culture.

“Before I can talk to a person they tell me what grade they are – and I struggle with it,” he told delegates to the Public Sector ICT Summit in March.

“I respect people for their knowledge, their experience and the creativity that they bring to their role, and that to me is far more important than the grade they are in.

Colin Marrs

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