Civil Service jobs don’t have the most inspiring reputation. They’re not seen as particularly sexy. Design a soundscape based on what the average person thinks of life in the civil service and it’d probably be a weird, melancholy little thing; the light rustle of papers, the bleating of an office telephone, the *scratch scratch scratch* of the bureaucratic cheese grater on your soul. The reality, though, as Jonathon, a Generalist on the Civil Service Graduate scheme ‘Fast Track’ is quick to tell me, is really very different. ‘When I was a student’, he remarks as I ask about what drew him to the service ‘I was a bit of an academic butterfly’. He took Middle Eastern studies here, not just because he was interested in the Middle East as a geo-political entity, but because doing so let him taste a little bit of everything. Unable to decide what exactly he wanted to do, Jonathon thought it best to do a little bit of everything. In a lot of ways, it’s the same with his job.
More than anything, he loves the variety of it, the wide range of positions he might be able to take up. Though he works in local government at the minute, Jonathon’s prior roles have seen him working as a communications officer and meeting up with journalists from major news networks. Before that, he was in urban planning, ‘focusing on property for over half the UK’. Nowadays, he’s ‘rarely behind the desk’. For him, the disengaged pencil pushing bureaucrat is a distant stereotype. Reality has a much faster pace. Recently, he spent half of the day trying to lease a building site to a high paying tenant and, after that, dashed off to ‘city hall to talk to the mayor’s team.’ There’s a pulse and a problem-solving pace to work with the Civil Service; the demand is high but the rewards- clear career progression, job security, and the sense that you’re actually doing something- are apparently just as huge.
the disengaged pencil pushing bureaucrat is a distant stereotype
That’s something Esmeralda, an English graduate and another member of the fast-stream team, was keen to tell me about. She used to work selling terminals for Bloomberg, a financial company, and as nice as earning ‘lots of money in the city’, apparently was, she felt like she wanted to ‘do something with real value’. The Civil Service, she says, offered her exactly that. As she puts it, ‘you can always be sure you’re adding value to other people’s lives just by doing your job.’ For Esmeralda, life in the Civil Service Fast-stream is all about making a difference, about doing a job that has a very real impact on a very real world. Though that’s not to say her salary took a horizontal hike off a cliff. Starters on the Civil Service fast track earn £28,000 a year, eight grand more than most graduate starting salaries. To boot, civil servants who complete the scheme stand to earn between £45,000-£55,000.
The scheme is wide open, too. Esmeralda is quick to point out that the Civil Service Fast stream is a graduate training scheme. they’re not looking for ‘established skills and experience’, instead, she makes clear, ‘they’re looking for potential.’ Jonathon agrees; ‘it’s a real sort of growth centre for future leaders. They’re training you to do in three or four years what it would take anyone else ten years to learn’. That intensity, though beneficial, though clearly part of the appeal, is reflected in the shape of the selection process itself. Jonathon boils it down to three central stages; there’s administration, which is exactly what it says on the tin, and then the second is a mix of two things, a behavioural test and a situational test. The former works out who you are. Are you impulsive or cautious? A rampant individualist or a diplomat, a team player? Are you innovative? Professional? Good with words or better with pictures? The service and the scheme are looking for all sorts of people. Grinning, Jonathon warns me against putting myself right down the centre line. ‘it’s obvious you’ve done it and it’s a major red flag. Probably don’t do it.’ There isn’t one particular style of bureaucrat the scheme is looking for; the civil service is too broad and too demanding an employer for that. The meek and moth bitten bureaucratic stereotype might get in, sure, but he’s not all they’re looking for. ‘They want a variety of people and a variety of backgrounds’, Johnathan says. After that, comes the situational test, you’ll be given a certain situation and a list of four responses. You have to rank them worst to best based on your own judgement.
After all that, the process gets slightly more elaborate. The situational test expands and, via email, you’re put in a particular role in a particular fictional department with a particular fictional problem. You’re given 80 minutes to read what that department is, where the problem lies and what you can do to fix it, as well as who else is with you. By finding out who’s who, and asking the right people the right kind of questions (‘don’t give coms questions to the HR guy’ is Johnathan’s smiling recommendation) you’ve got to get close to solving the problem. At the same stage there’s a video interview, but you won’t have the luxury of getting to speak to an actual person, instead you answer questions as they flash up on a screen and you answer them. After all that, you’re off to the assessment centre in either Newcastle or London, dependent on where you’re based when you apply. This is usually a half day of work, and it expands on the email test you got in the second stage. Again, you’re in a fictional team with a fictional problem; maybe someone’s gone on maternity leave and there’s not quite enough staff, maybe you need to develop something, respond to something, but doing so is going to stretch the budget past the point of good health it’s your job to work around it. There are no right or wrong answers, so long as your point makes sense. What’s important is that you work as a team and come to a conclusion you can all support, regardless of whether or not you all agree.
Civil Service, the uppermost tiers especially, ‘obviously isn’t as diverse as we want it to be’
When I ask how diverse the civil service is, pointing to recently released statistics which reveal that only 4.5% of the senior civil service comes from BAME backgrounds, Johnathan admits that the Civil Service, the uppermost tiers especially, ‘obviously isn’t as diverse as we want it to be’. In 2015 only 15% of fast stream appointments were from BAME backgrounds, and appointments from working class backgrounds were only 4%, which is actually worse than Oxbridge. Nonetheless, though, the service is trying to improve; ‘we try and encourage people from wider backgrounds to apply so that they’ve got a chance of getting in’ and that mentality, that dedication to change, is reflected in Jonathan himself. A First-generation scholar, he’s benefited from the schemes widening participation measures himself, and he’s eager to disavow a lot of the stereotypes people might have about jobs in Whitehall. When one eager-eyed undergraduate asks ‘suppose if I knew someone…’ Jonathan politely cuts him off; ‘no,’ he says with a laugh ‘there’s no nepotism in the Civil Service.’
The Civil Service Fast stream and the Civil Service at large, both have their problems, but they present diverse, exciting career paths, jobs which not only see you tackling a myriad of challenges, but actively shaping the society in which you live. If nothing else, the Civil Service might be worth a look.