The civil service has good HR processes; the government doesn’t. Discuss.

Within the course of a week, two government ministers resigned under pressure over impropriety and governance issues.

Last week, Theresa May’s Defence Secretary resigned under a cloud of allegations about impropriety and because he couldn’t guarantee there was no prospect of further issues emerging.

So, Gavin Williamson, erstwhile Chief Whip and holder of all the dirt on the disgraced Defence Secretary, shimmies into the top position of State. He goes from keeping a list of MP’s weaknesses and proclivities to a position where he is making life and death decisions on a daily basis.  I’m not even sure he was in the cadet force at school or the sea scouts on a Thursday evening (what HR people would call ‘domain competence’).

And today, Priti Patel, International Development Secretary, now joins the growing ranks of former government ministers who have more time to spend with their families. She was, according to one commentator this morning, naïve in her conduct, but more importantly, he said, these ministers don’t have a proper induction when they move into what are big jobs, with big budgets and sensitive issues to handle. Good point.

But how is that OK? Imagine appointing a butcher as a consultant thoracic surgeon. 

In the corporate world, appointing a completely unsuitable candidate to a top job in any company is rare.  This is because ‘top talent’ and likely successors are systematically coached, trained and assessed throughout their career, so stepping into a leading position is a logical, incremental move.  Equally, head-hunters are scrupulous in assessing outside candidates and take meaningful references.  So, by comparison, becoming a minister from the back-benches must be a shock, even if ambitious politicians (tautology) relish the prospect.

Aside from the political and Brexit leanings of a ministerial candidate (today probably accounting to 75% of the available assessment points), why aren’t a ministerial candidate’s competence and leadership capacity neutrally assessed – and compared with other likely appointees?  Where’s their HR file?

It seems that the backbone of running the country is undertaken by professional civil servants for whom decent HR systems and processes exist.  Senior civil servants know about governance, protocol and communications.  And it’s a good job, because ministers are parachuted in for a term of office, try to radically change stuff and in the end learn the art of the possible.

What broke down here with Priti Patel’s ‘working holiday’ was that the visit and itinerary were not led by her civil servants. They probably didn’t know she was going to extend the concept of a ‘holiday’, to include 12 meetings in one week, including one with the leader of another country.

But do we know whether her induction into her role included an explanation of the obligations to properly plan, inform, prepare, record and follow-up foreign visits – and the reasons for these seemingly bureaucratic steps? Did she know that venues for official meetings would be ‘swept’ for bugs in case foreign actors wanted to compromise politicians, blackmail them and use them for their own purposes?

We don’t know what she knew.

But her department’s decision to hang her out to dry by denying knowledge of meetings, or confirming that they didn’t involve department staff, speaks volumes.  Her civil servants had had enough.

This systemic failure can be addressed with the introduction of transparent systems and processes for the induction of new ministers.  Never mind competence and leadership assessments for now. That can come later.  But the basics MUST be adopted for the sake of new ministers and for the sake of the reputation of their department and of the government.

And once they’ve been inducted – they need to sign off that they understand their obligations, just like any manager in an international company has to do when they complete compliance training. This means any transgression is a ‘commission’, rather than an ‘omission’ and therefore a sackable offence.

Seems fair.

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