I propose that the Civil Service launches a ‘senior’ version of the Fast Stream to recruit over-50s who would otherwise retire early to have a second career in public service.
‘Senior Fast Stream’ would serve as a vehicle to (partially) tackle three challenge that the UK and the Civil Service currently face:
A) Significant and growing numbers of over-50s taking early retirement and exiting the labour force;
B) Public services struggling to meet long-term demand and to overcome short-term pandemic-linked extra demand and backlogs;
C) The persistent challenge of bringing private sector expertise into the Civil Service.
While an individual recruitment scheme cannot solve all three problems singlehandedly, ‘Senior Fast Stream’ would provide a policy vehicle for:
i. Keeping high productivity, high-skilled over 50s in the labour force;
ii. Bringing private sector expertise and experience into the Civil Service;
iii. Providing a substantial amount of public sector resource and expertise to improve the delivery of public services;
iv. Establishing the Civil Service as a role model employer of over-50s to drive economywide cultural change against ageist working practices and barriers to continued labour force participation.
1. Surging early retirement
The UK labour market has been artificially tightened by the exit of a significant number of over-50s from the labour force since the start of COVID-19. While many have been driven out by worsening health, a significant number have exited at least partially voluntarily to take early retirement. Their exit is directly contributing to the UK’s current economic issues, even though net migration is high. As the UK population ages, the exit of fit and healthy over-50s will be increasingly detrimental.
There are push and pull factors at play here. On one side, early retirement has becoming increasingly financially viable for many over-50s because of the substantial asset price increases seen in the 2010s, especially property prices and equities, combined with pension reforms such as the lump sum draw down.
On the other, digital exclusion and growing service-sector workplace stress make staying in the labour force unappealing. Additionally, many careers either accidentally or sometimes purposefully build obsolescence into their progression pathways.
2. Struggling public delivery
UK public services are struggling to meet the demands on them. These demands have been exacerbated by COVID-19, such as the elective care backlog and schools playing catch-up with children’s education, but the delivery organs of the state were already struggling pre-pandemic. It was no accident that the majority-winning 2019 Conservative manifesto was, at heart, a promise that the state would deliver for the British people: 50,000 more nurses, 40 new hospitals and 20,000 more police officers. Its popularity is a strong message about the British public’s expectations of the state to delivery for them in the 21st Century.
3. Bringing private sector expertise into the Civil Service
Fixing the Civil Service’s struggles importing private sector expertise has long been on the Civil Service reform ‘To Do’ list. Reform efforts to this point have concentrated both on high-profile senior roles and on employment within conventional employment models. However, reforms to enable greater ease of access for private sector workers into the Civil Service, especially at senior levels, have had disappointingly low impact.
A (Partial) Solution: ‘Senior Fast Stream’
The policy proposal is to create a structured Civil Service employment scheme for over-50s who have a recent private sector career history.
The design of ‘Senior Fast Stream’ should incentivize people in their 50s and 60s who have reached a natural exit point in their previous private sector career to choose a second career in the public sector, rather than voluntary early retirement. It could also bring those who previously retired early back into the labour force.
It should aim to replicate the success the current ‘Junior’ Fast Stream in creating a high profile, high reputation pathway into the public sector for the best and the most motivated. To do this, ‘Senior Fast Stream’ must offer a sufficiently desirable package of non-monetary benefits, including work-life balance, flexible employment options, workplace empowerment and engaging work, and monetary renumeration, while still delivering value-for-money for the Exchequer.
Like the ‘Junior Fast Stream’, it should have different ‘streams’ targeted at different needs within the Civil Service and different types of external expertise. To start with, it could have the following core ‘streams’:
• Delivery Stream
Delivery ‘Senior Fast Streamers’ will form a mobile, centrally-organised resource designed to be deployed across the various delivery organs of government.
The purpose of the ‘Delivery Stream’ is to create a pool of labour resource which can be used in the day-to-day activity of government and in emergencies can be quickly called on to staff the government’s response. In doing so frontline services could be effectively resourced from the centre in response to frontline local need and the government’s resilience and responses functions could be strengthened.
On the day-to-day side, a ‘Delivery Senior Fast Streamer’, might for example, spend a year working four days a week working for her local council co-running a procurement project and the remaining day mentoring in a series of schools around the area. Then next year she transitions to one-to-one tutoring for students struggling to catch-up post-pandemic in core literacy and numeracy skills, plus outside of term time running training for junior job centre employees.
On the emergency response side, using historic examples from the pandemic, rather than expensively contracting third parties to run the public testing system on the ground and struggling to hire high-quality tutors to do school catch-up tutoring, ‘Delivery Senior Fast Streamers’ could have been deployed.
The Delivery ‘stream’ is the main route through which the ‘Senior Fast Stream’ can directly and positively make life in the UK better and so should be the focus of recruitment.
• Policy Consultant
There are many skills which the individual organs of government need to develop and/or deliver certain policies but do not need enough of the time to justify permanently hiring the relevant expertise.
In some cases, but not all, the Civil Service has established permanent teams to drive reform or to centrally carry out policy work. Typically based out of the Cabinet Office they include the likes of the Government Actuary’s Department and the digital transformation teams. However, helping other parts of government can delay these teams’ own work and get caught up in wider intra-governmental negotiations, particularly when the Treasury is involved.
The ’Policy Consultant’ scheme would recruit similarly skilled people, but from a private sector background and likely at an older age, to come in to support specific projects and policies across government.
For example, a local authority starting a community participation scheme could call on a ‘Policy Consultant Senior Fast Streamer’ with a background in private sector product launches to help design the local advertising campaign for it and guide the scheme’s launch. Or a central government department running a consultation on a recent report could call on one with a market research background to design stakeholder focus groups.
‘Senior Fast Stream’ can adopt the overall shape and logistics of the ‘Generalist stream’ of the ‘Junior Fast Stream’ – an annual recruitment process, central contracting and centrally-managed resource allocation – with some adaption. Importantly, the contracts for ‘Senior Fast Streamers’ must enable working across local government, arms-length bodies and executive agencies and central government departments.
‘Senior Fast Streamers’ must be recruited on the basis of their transferable skills from their previous career which give them the ability to move between different roles and to efficiently operate across them. The more these skills can be ones not normally present or developed in the public sector, the better.
To draw in and retain some of the best and most motivated over-50s talent into public sector careers, instead of taking early retirement or another, likely more lucrative, private sector role, the scheme’s non-monetary offer must be first-class. ‘Senior Fast Streamers’ should have choice over whether they want a permanent or fixed-term contract, full- or part-time work. They should receive a set of induction and ongoing trainings targeted at removing barriers to their continued working, such as digital and IT skills. Agency over which roles they take on will be essential.
In how they incentivize ‘Senior Fast Streamers’ to apply and stay, the Civil Service has the opportunity to deploy innovative ways of employment and ways of working tailored to individuals approaching retirement age. Part of this could include novel monetary and non-monetary renumeration methods, such as improvements in their public pension offer and preferential access to publicly funded events and services like local sports facilities and sporting events.
By developing this innovative employment offer for over-50s, the Civil Service can serve as a role model employer and also use the ‘Senior Fast Stream’ as a sandbox for trialling ways of working policies which could then be rolled out economywide.
‘Senior Fast Stream’ could easily be reformed and expanded by adding or changing ‘streams’ and changing cohort sizes as the needs of the public sector change.