Recruitment reforms to make it easier for Whitehall departments to bring in ‘highly specialist skills’

Exceptions added to Civil Service Commission Recruitment Principles could allow for digital professionals to be brought in without full hiring process

Whitehall departments could be just weeks away from a new era of freedom to make appointments for particularly specialised roles without needing to run a full, open recruitment process.

Revisions to the Civil Service Commission’s Recruitment Principles, envisaged as going live from the start of the new financial year on 1 April, would allow ministries to sidestep open competitions when such a move was judged to be pointless within the timescale.

The revisions do not specify what areas or functions might constitute “highly specialist skills”, but the changes may well make it easier for departments to recruit in-demand digital professionals. Civil service chief executive John Manzoni recently described high-end digital skills as “rare”, adding that government faces stiff competition from the private sector in attracting those that possess them.

The Public Accounts Committee recently accused the Department for Exiting the European Union of lacking a credible plan for bringing in the talent it needs to make a success of Brexit. The Civil Service Commission argues that its proposals could help ease recruitment problems.

The principles are published as a requirement of the Constitution Reform and Governance Act 2010, and are designed to underscore that appointments to civil service roles should be made on the basis of merit and be subject to fair and open competition. 

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It stated that the commission is not proposing “a major revision of the recruitment principles at this point”, but adds that “some adjustments would be beneficial, particularly concerning the use of the permitted exceptions to the merit requirement”.

A new exception – introduced in a draft revision of the principles that is currently out to consultation – states: “Departments may appoint people with highly specialist skills that are not readily available within the civil service for up to two years where a full open competition is judged to be unlikely to secure suitable appointees within the limited timescale.”

And it cautioned: “All uses of this exception at whatever grade, require the prior agreement of the commission.”

The commission said it wanted to make the change because it recognised that while departments were already able to take innovative and creative approaches to their recruitment needs – as had been demonstrated in relation to some digital and commercial roles – more could be done.

“We do recognise that there are circumstances when recruitment on merit on the basis of fair and open competition is unlikely to bring in individuals with highly specialist skills in the numbers required within a desired timeframe,” it said.

The consultation said that the use of the exception would “not be frequent” and would require advance consent from the commission.

It acknowledged that departments have already been given leeway to make appointments related to Brexit when hirings are supported by an appropriate business case, and when the roles are not expected to last for more than three years.

But it said the new exception, named “Exception 4”, may also prove beneficial in relation to recruiting staff with specialist skills related to Brexit.

Other revisions to the Recruitment Principles set out in draft form target better helping the civil service meet short-term staffing needs, and aiding people from disadvantaged groups to get work experience.

The consultation is open until February 26.


Sam Trendall

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