Senior Civil Service to become more visible and strategic
The Senior Civil Service (SCS) (in Dutch: Algemene Bestuursdienst, ABD) should become more visible and strategic. This is the conclusion of researchers from Utrecht University led by Prof. Mirko Noordegraaf. The group was commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior to study the organisation and the Office for the Senior Civil Service – a central organisation made up of approximately 1,400 of the most senior civil service executives of central government.
The SCS duties primarily lie in the area of filling vacancies and emphasising the importance of mobility fairly assiduously. However, the SCS has little insight into and control over the performance of civil service executives at the respective ministries. This is at odds with the expectations in relation to civil service expertise, substantive knowledge and effective and decisive management of the civil service, with a view to achieving social objectives, and also fuels political and social concerns. The SCS has remained remarkably silent in relation to negative perceptions of ostensibly political appointments, incompletely informed ministers and the investigation into the Childcare benefit scandal.
In their report entitled Quality of Mobility (Kwaliteit van Mobiliteit), the researchers make a series of concrete recommendations for improvements in this regard – recommendations for all parties involved in the SCS, from the Ministry of the Interior and the secretaries-general of ministries to the House of Representatives. The government supports the conclusions of the report.
Structural issues in the senior civil service
The Lodders et al. motion in the House of Representatives, in which the government was requested to investigate the functioning of civil service top management and to focus specifically on 'preventing poorly functioning civil servants from being employed elsewhere in government' provided the impetus for the investigation into the functioning of the SCS. A number of incidents, inter alia at the Tax and Customs Administration and at the Ministry of Justice, however, directly gave rise to this study, The House of Representatives wished to establish whether structural issues existed at the most senior civil service levels of government.
Find out more about the reason that gave rise to the study. (only in Dutch)
Expectations higher than what the SCS can offer
In Quality of Mobility, the researchers and advisers at the USG conclude that the SCS organisation has many positive effects for the national government, as (top) civil service vacancies are filled, recruitment and selection has been professionalised and work is done on the competences, development and assessment of top civil servants. The top level of the civil service is dynamic, and mobility prevents civil servants from remaining in post for too long. In addition, gender balance has been realised to an ever increasing degree.
The researchers put into perspective the idea that there is a closed 'civil service carousel', with guaranteed appointments and the 'parking' of civil servants in the event of inadequate performance.
They do, however, note that the SCS has certain vulnerabilities:
- Management development approach. The SCS organisation is primarily operational in nature. The career development model does lead to the desired mobility, but it is applied too rigidly. The SCS system is not transparent to the outside world.
- Leading senior civil servants. There is insufficient transparency into the underpinnings of the match been people and positions. There is insufficient insight into the performance of civil service management.
- Professionals. The SCS contributes to professional, apolitical appointments. Despite influx, advancement and departures, the group of professionals appears to be a closed pool from the ‘The Hague’ bubble.
- Collaboration and quality. There is insufficient focus and attention within the SCS system with regard to precarious management positions. The political and civil service interplay makes performance more political and complex. The expectations of the SCS system are higher than what it can offer.
In addition, the researchers argue that the SCS is not strategic enough in its activities. The organisation is insufficiently linked to the performance of top civil servants in central government. Too many aspects remain implicit, and signals regarding the performance of top civil servants do not penetrate to a sufficient degree. There is limited visible contribution to the quality of central government.
‘The SCS really needs to act more strategically,’ says project leader Mirko Noordegraaf. ‘Issues need to be flagged up more, there needs to be more alignment with the House and there needs to be a stronger response to negative perceptions. The service currently operates too much as a party that merely implements mandatory mobility guidelines and procedures. Mobility is important – but in moderation. The average term of office for a top civil servant is now 4.3 years – roughly the same as that of a cabinet of ministers and state secretaries. This also has a negative impact on the quality of the work of the (top) civil servants, particularly if there is limited transparency. The SCS can do more to promote the quality of civil service management.’
Mobility is important – but in moderation.
Recommendations: multi-party actions
How can the SCS become a strategic system that lives up to expectations? Within their concrete recommendations, the researchers call on five different parties to take action.
- Office for the SCS:
- Make recruitment and selection less person-oriented and more position-oriented.
- Ensure structural identification of the quality of civil service management.
Clarify activities and their impact on the political domain and the outside world.
- Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations:
- Implement a diligent and thorough growth strategy.
- Strengthen the position of the Office for the SCS within the national government.
- Ensure the SCS system is introduced into political debate more effectively.
- Secretaries-General Consultation:
- Strengthen the quality of the civil service through the SCS system.
- Profile and equip the Office for the SCS as a strategic entity.
- Ensure timely identification of problems in the performance of top civil service management.
- Protect and safeguard appointment procedures.
- Apply the 3-5-7 career development model less rigidly.
- Take a more relaxed approach to political-civil service interaction and communication.
- House of Representatives:
- Hold periodic briefings on the SCS within the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Interior and Kingdom Relations.
- Put in place structural coordination with the Director-general of the SCS.
- Be open to more relaxed political-civil service interaction.
The USG research team consisted of Prof. Mirko Noordegraaf (project leader), Dr Marie-Jeanne Schiffelers (executive project coordinator), Dr Jasmijn van Harten (researcher), Erik-Jan van Dorp MSc (junior researcher) and Merbel Slothouwer (research assistant).
This team was assisted by a team of experts from Utrecht University, consisting of Prof. Paul ’t Hart, Prof. Mark Bovens and Prof. Lars Tummers.
External supervisory committee
The study was supervised by an external committee consisting of independent third parties from the domains of politics/public administration, business, science and academia. This committee consisted of:
Andrée van Es (chair), former member of the House of Representatives, director-general of Governance and Kingdom Relations and councillor; Hilde Garssen, chief people officer and member of the Board of Management of KPN; and Zeger van der Wal, professor of Public Administration (Leiden University).
The supervisory committee supervised the execution of the research according to the research plan and monitored the quality of the methods used and the results delivered.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this study, please contact the project leader, Prof. Mirko Noordegraaf, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to find out more, please read the full report or the summary or consult the infographic.