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Looking after the talent

Public Service - analysis_opinion_debate

22 February 2012

Despite tough times, the civil service is attracting record numbers of applications from top graduates. Helen Dudley, director of talent management, tells Alison Thomas why this pipeline of ability is so vital

As the civil service’s director of talent management Helen Dudley has a job title that could seem appropriate for an X Factor judge.

The talents required of senior civil service leaders in turbulent times are rather different. Dudley lists resilience, innovation, creativity and the ability the work collaboratively as some of the key skills to lead the 21st century civil service.

Her responsibilities include the “top 200” crème de la crème of the civil service – its permanent secretaries and directors general – and ensuring a strong pipeline of talent for top posts, as well as the Fast Stream graduate recruitment programme. She is also developing a talent management framework to help the civil service identify and develop the brightest and the best at director and deputy director level.

This is a time of changing expectations of leadership, Dudley says.

“One of the big things for leaders is about being more resilient in these challenging times, both personally and organisationally.

“People have to find ways of doing things differently as resources are fewer, using different channels, different approaches, working across boundaries and collaborating with others to find different solutions. Those are the sorts of areas to show leadership and support different ways of doing things.”

Work on developing collaborative skills is already under way, including a recent Top 200 event showcasing live projects such as a collaboration between the Department for Work and Pensions and Age UK.

“We are exploring non-traditional ways of doing things where we can facilitate as opposed to direct,” Dudley explains.

“People now join forces to deliver things in a lot of areas. Successful partnership is about having a common objective and vision at the outset and a clear understanding of different roles and responsibilities.”

There is also a stronger emphasis on the current generation of leaders teaching up-and-coming staff and passing on their knowledge, experience and lessons from the challenges they have faced. Non-executive directors of departments, who also bring an outside perspective, will have a crucial role in this area, Dudley says.

“Part of their role is to make sure that departments are doing talent management and succession planning,” she says. “Non-execs bring experience of having done that in their own organisations, and they can support and challenge their department and make sure they are doing it.”

As for Sir Gus O’Donnell’s famous advice that civil servants need to broaden their experience and “get out to get on”, Dudley acknowledges that finding outside placements in the private sector has not been a main focus in a period of downsizing.

But she adds: “Broadening people’s experience is really important. There are lots of ways of doing it – making sure that a fast-streamer always does a posting outside the department to which they are recruited, and encouraging people to take up opportunities in voluntary sector through the Charity Next scheme, for example.

“We are very keen for people to have corporate experience through short-term attachments to private sector companies, or by learning alongside people from the private sector on training courses,”

And despite tough times, the civil service is attracting “record numbers” of applicants for fast stream recruitment, she says. “It’s a fantastic talent pipeline attracting some of the best graduates.”

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