Civil service to pilot online recruitment tool to cut reliance on ‘outdated’ technology

The government chief people officer Rupert McNeil has said that the civil service is using recruitment technology that is “40 or 50 years out of date” as the civil service announces plans to trial a cloud-based recruitment platform in efforts to tackle bias.

The civil service is one of 30 organisations piloting Applied in an effort to tackle bias in recruitment – Photo credit: PA

The recruitment tool, Applied, which was launched yesterday, has been developed by the social purpose company the Behavioural Insights Team, which was spun out of the Cabinet Office in 2014.

It aims to make recruitment fairer, and organisations more diverse, by cutting out a number of biases that can affect the application process and going beyond anonymising – or “blinding” – applications.

The cloud-based platform is now being used by 30 organisations, including Penguin, Cancer Research UK and Barnados, as well as the UK civil service.

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Speaking at the launch event, government chief people officer Rupert McNeil said that the civil service was “not getting the right people into the hopper” during recruitment and was relying on out-dated technology.

“[Recruitment] should be a huge, industrially rigorous process, but if you applied the test that you’d apply to a process like procurement and looked at how, in many cases, recruitment is done, it’s pretty awful from a wastage point of view,” he said.

“We’re making all sorts of errors in dropping people out of the process at the wrong stage, so we want [start making] the best decisions.”

He said that the civil service had been using technology used for recruitment was “maybe 40 or 50 years out of date” and not fit for purpose anymore. The technology behind the Applied platform offers a “fantastic” way of removing bias, McNeil said.

The platform requires applicants to fill in a series of questions that are based on work they might be expected to do in the role. These are anonymised and randomised, and recruiters will review a set of answers to just one question – a process known as “chunking” and similar to the way teachers mark exam questions.

The idea is to reduce “halo bias”, where a good or bad answer to one question colours a reviewer’s opinion of all the questions, regardless of their individual merits.

It also allows a number of reviewers to independently assess sets of questions and then compare their results afterwards, rather than in a group setting where people tend to be influenced by their peer’s opinions.

The government’s use of Applied is part of wider plans to move away from competency-based reviews, which McNeil said was “very rigid”.

He said: “[The competency-based approach] has been used more rigidly than it was intended to be used, and to the exclusion of other data that can be used to inform decision-making, and actually to the exclusion of good reasonable judgement by people who are hiring managers.”

McNeil added: “People can get very good at filling in the competency-based forms, but that doesn’t actually tell you a lot about their ability to do the job.”

Applied success

Applied’s chief executive office Kate Glazebrook said that the BIT tested the platform against the team’s standard recruitment approach of assessing CVs for a recent recruitment round, finding that they would have had to review three times as many CVs to identify the people who performed well at assessment.

Glazebrook added that anecdotal evidence from other users suggested that using Applied cut administration time by two-thirds, with a three times improvement in sourcing of diverse candidates.

The system also uses data gathered on applications to offer all applicants feedback, giving them their overall rankings for each question and information on their broad areas of strengths and weaknesses.

A panel discussion at the launch event identified potential future uses in ensuring that people were applying to the right jobs in the first place and taking the bias out of performance management and appraisals.

McNeil said that performance management was a place “where you get a lot of bias” and that it would “lend itself very much to this type of solution”.

However, McNeil stressed that, although there will be a lot of useful data generated, the new platform is not about automating the recruitment process, but about “making sure as much noise as possible is removed”.

Late last year, the Government Digital Service revealed plans to create a new recruitment platform for government that will replace Civil Service Jobs, which it said was not meeting user needs.


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