Event Report: Social mobility - advances in thinking and outcomes in the Civil Service

Phil Wilson, Civil Service Fast Stream
5th December 2017


Report by Richard Taylor


Social mobility is a constant challenge to us all and yet little progress seems to have been made, as evidenced by the recent resignation of the All-Party Social Mobility Commission.  The main problem is that little effort has been made to tackle it in an evidenced based manner: only in this way will young people and job applicants generally have the opportunities in a changing jobs environment, argued Phil Wilson, head of the Civil Service Fast Stream Service. 

Phil's remit covers 1300 roles and his task is to identify talent and develop a meaningful diversity pipeline for each of these roles.   Once in post, the aim is to make sure that they are comfortable in their roles and then getting them to progress further.  The aim of the service is to become the most inclusive talent programme in UK by 2020.


What is Social Mobility? 

There have been many definitions over the years but the most relevant two are:

*          Social mobility is about each new generation benefiting from more and better opportunities to get on in life   (Panel on Fair access to the professions)


*          Where social background does not define an individuals future opportunities but instead the individual defines them.  (CAPP)


It matters to the Civil Service that the issue is addressed.  If the public sector does not lead, then the private sector won't take it seriously.  The Fast Stream is listed in the top 50 organisations for Social Mobility.  Amazingly, such an important issue is still given only cursory mention in a substantial recently published book on Inclusive Leadership.


The Sutton Trust, which provides funding for special educational programmes for children from poorer backgrounds, has undertaken a considerable amount of analysis and arrived at some shocking statistics: for example, men from disadvantaged backgrounds are 50% less likely to enrol on advanced apprenticeships.  International comparisons from a UK perspective are equally disturbing.  Young German men from less privileged backgrounds are much more likely to enrol on apprenticeships and make a success of them.   90% are on level 3 or higher as opposed to 40% in the UK.   This has much to do with culture and consistency of approach but more can be learned from their evidence-based approach and their emphasis on identifying a need and delivering appropriate training. 


The Prime Minister has put her weight behind developing opportunities for young people and the Social Mobility Commission was established and which produced the report "State of the Nation 2017": however, preoccupation with Brexit has meant that, like other areas requiring the attention of Government, little progress has been made and the entire group has resigned.  In its short life, however, the Commission made some interesting observations, including the highlighting of a complex pattern of a postcode lottery.  For example, London is much more progressive than other areas of the country, and some of the richest areas of the country, like Dorset, being one of the worst performers.    Statistics on attainment gaps are equally disturbing, indicating that the disadvantaged are 30% less likely to achieve 5 A* to C grades at GCSEs.


Social Mobility issues are also impacted by the reluctance of people to move geographical areas.  While clearly the cost of housing is a factor, there are wider issues and action to tackle Mobility has taken on a new sense of urgency. 


So what can and is being done?  

The Fast Stream has been analysing data to assess motivation of candidates and taking actions to try to draw its pool from wider socio-economic groups.  The Bridge Group, a charitable policy association, has drawn many conclusions but importantly has identified that many young people, from a wide range of groups, do not particularly want higher academic qualifications but would prefer to take a form of vocational training.  Those from disadvantaged backgrounds also preferred the use of a simpler form of language and reduced application periods.  The Fast Stream has therefore 

*          established a regional assessment centre in Newcastle.  This has enabled a wider pool of candidates to be assessed.

*          initiated a vocational training route where appropriate and feasible

*          recognised that personal financial issues are important for many people and reduced the time for the application process

*          recognised that schools have an important role to play, in that many disadvantaged pupils lack and need help with developing confidence and self-belief, and have become more involved with schools.

*          instigated summer internships which a strong emphasis on Diversity in recruitment and confidence building


The Fast Stream is also using a wider array of recruitment tools which may make young people more comfortable.  These include:

*          Video Interviewing using strengths based assessment.         

*          Virtual Reality techniques: some good pioneering work has been undertaken by CAPP which has identified ways of profiling people in different environments and pooling the information.

*          A recognition that interviews are flawed.  A greater emphasis is being placed on competency frameworks 

*          A recognition that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are possessed with a form of "self-limitation" and need to be helped over the first two hurdles

*          FastPass which is proving that simplification is actually working without compromising standards.


Fast Stream have now streamlined their selection through a four stage process:

*          Online assessment

*          An e-tray exercise

*          Assessment Centres: focusing on Strengths based interview, group exercise, leadership exercise and policy exercise. 

*          Final Selection   


What have been the achievements to date?

From 2016 to 2017 these have been:


Achievements - 1

• Doubling of the success rate for lower socio-economic candidates in 2017, compared to 2016

• Recognised as the highest public sector agency in the 2017 UK Social Mobility Index

• Fast Stream and Early Talent (FSET) were ‘Highly Commended’ in the 2017 UK Social Mobility Awards for Organisation of the Year and the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Championing Social Mobility Award

• Trendence’s 2017 market research data has shown we have bucked the national

trend of diverse/lower socio-economic students turning away from the public


• Number 4 in Trendence employer rankings for final year students


Achievements - 2

• Time to hire: earliest – 19 Days

• Feedback from the SDIP Has been overwhelmingly positive, with almost 100% of interns indicating that they would recommend the programme

• ‘Fast Pass’ Delivering a 400% Improvement on the previous year in terms of conversion to Fast Stream


Much work has still be done and there is never an exact answer to a systemic problem.  However, what has been proved is that several micro-steps taken as a result of an evidence-based approach can make a considerable difference to the effectiveness and efficiency of a recruitment operation which makes the challenging application process  more open, accessible and businesslike.  Most organisations could benefit from focusing on how the Fast Stream has achieved such spectacular results.


Phil has kindly given us permission to share his presentation slides here.



5th December 2017