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Throwing light on the Civil Service Shadow Board

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Head and shoulders of Elkie Symes
Elkie Symes

It's a common refrain from workforces everywhere that they would like more influence over the running of their organisation. As civil servants, it's true, we have the annual People Survey - one of the biggest staff surveys of its kind - but what permanent, formal channels exist through which we can actively contribute and make our views known on issues that matter to us?

Well, in March this year, I and 9 other civil servants below SCS level were nominated by our departmental permanent secretaries to be members of the Civil Service Shadow Board (CSSB).

What is the Civil Service Shadow Board?

To mix metaphors, the Shadow Board mirrors the Civil Service Board (CSB), the group responsible for the strategic leadership of the Civil Service. It is made up of representatives from the same ten departments, and examines the same topics and issues as the CSB.

As Sir Jeremy Heywood mentioned in a previous blog, the Shadow Board has three main objectives:

  1. to provide views on the papers going to CSB in advance of each monthly board meeting
  2. to undertake specific corporate projects for CSB to support its management and reform of the Civil Service
  3. to develop a communication role to support the work of CSB both at a service-wide level and within individual departments

Let’s look at each of these.

1. Providing views on CSB papers

The CSB meets monthly for two hours on a Monday morning. Ahead of each meeting, the Shadow Board get together and feed back on papers to be discussed by permanent secretaries at CSB the following Wednesday.

One member of the Shadow Board then writes and presents a paper which summarises our thoughts and makes recommendations. In a way, we are like a critical friend, offering constructive challenge to try and achieve a better outcome. But we are also a sounding board for changes CSB wish to make to the Civil Service. What has pleasantly surprised all of us is the level of engagement and trust that we have experienced from members of CSB. They really do take our suggestions seriously!

2. Corporate projects

Members of the Shadow Board have been working on two corporate projects to try and solve a specific challenge facing the Civil Service.

The first of these projects is focused on how we can develop talent in the regions and looks at these main questions:

  • What are the challenges? Is work outside the centre valued less? Are there fewer opportunities? Is there less sense of belonging? Are those in the regions more likely to experience unconscious bias or IT and logistical challenges?
  • Do the challenges vary by region? Do talented people find it difficult to develop a varied and upward career within any given region?
  • Is it possible to develop a varied and upward civil service career across the country? Or is it too difficult to uproot a family? Does an attachment to your home department prevent you from taking up a post in another region?
  • Is it difficult to recruit talent in specialist/business-critical roles in some parts of the country? The second corporate project concentrates on how to increase movement of civil servants in and out of the service. For example, through interchange with the private sector, NGOs and other parts of the public sector, such as the NHS. As well as interchange and secondments (temporary exchange), we are also looking at the permanent movement of staff, but with an easier route back into the Civil Service.

We are due to present our views to the CSB in December, so would love to hear about your experiences and any ideas you may have on either of these projects before then.

3. Communication role

In all honesty, this is probably the objective that we have been slowest to get going on, despite arguably being the most important of them all. But we hope that this blog will be one of many from the Shadow Board. We are keen to engage with every corner of the Civil Service, and I think our choice of corporate projects reflects and shows our commitment to this.

Please use the comments section of this blog to give us any thoughts or questions you might have on the Civil Service Shadow Board. We would particularly appreciate your thoughts on our corporate projects.

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  1. Comment by Adam posted on

    The challenges for civil servants in the regions seem to be threefold:

    Moving posts (and especially Departments) becomes a huge commitment. If you're London-based moving from Defra to DECC (for example) is relatively trivial. If you're not London-based, then it could easily mean moving house, with all the attendent knock-on consequences for the rest of your family. If you're not willing or not able to do that then your career opportunities narrow quite quickly. This is compounded whenever there's a view that 'successful' civil servants are those who've worked in many Departments. On the other hand, it can be helpful if its your spouse who needs to move to work - there's a chance you can carry on your civil service career in another city. These things cut both ways.

    Sometimes the problems can be "got around" by allowing people to work from home a lot, and travel to London (or elsewhere) regularly. But this can be expensive for the Department, and not always good for your work-life balance. The extent to which it really is difficult is perhaps evidenced by how often (or little) London-based civil servants manage those outside the capital and travel to see them.

    Being away from the main office in London also means you can be much less visible and more easily forgotten by the centre. It takes a lot more effort to keep silos from forming in the way we work.

  2. Comment by Rob posted on

    My experience is that it's incredibly difficult to develop your career outside of London. There's simply no training other than e-learning. Classroom courses are for the priviledged in the Capital and travel bans mean no one outside can attend. Unless they are senior managers as senior leaders can do whatever they please and seem to be immune to any restrictions.

    Your only hope is to get another job and hope that they will train you in some way.

  3. Comment by Mark posted on

    Interesting work of value to all civil servants, where are the minutes from the fortnightly meeting and outputs from projects held, so staff can view?

  4. Comment by Sylvia Depaul posted on

    My experience of living in a regional area could well help in adding information to the current questions you are asking. I have worked in 3 different areas of the Civil Service over the last 17 years. My grade now is the same as it was 17 years ago, which shows how difficult it can be when hit by recession and recruitment freezes and being unable to relocate at a lower grade.