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The civil service is recruiting a load of tech-savvy grads

"Technology and business" in the fast stream.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Every year, in the autumn, hundreds of new civil servants wander into Whitehall. They are the fortunate individuals who have succeeded in getting through the "Fast Stream", the government’s graduate recruitment scheme.

There are a number of strands to the programme, but perhaps the most interesting is "Technology in Business", which is designed to find the future digital and technology leaders of the civil service. They are a relatively rare species at the moment, with just sixty civil servants having entered via the scheme, but they are due to almost double in number this autumn thanks to a new cohort. 

We caught up with three "Technology in Business" fast streamers- or "TiBers", as they are known informally by their colleagues, as they celebrated their first year working for Her Majesty’s Government in some of the most high-profile departments.

Gus, Chloe and Chris- currently working at the Major Projects Authority, the Department for Work & Pensions and the Home Office, respectively- don’t take much prompting to enthuse about their time in the civil service so far.

Gus says, "There’s nowhere where you can do more careers in one", explaining, "you’re in an organisation of around 400,000 employees, but as a fast streamer you have a door in. There’s a credibility that goes with that, it buys you a way in, and then you can choose almost any single one of those jobs- not at senior levels obviously- but if you want to work in an area that the civil service operates, you can do that."

Chris agrees, adding, "With the civil service the fact that you’ve got this vast array of departments and agencies that you can work for, and get stuck in with different projects, is really quite exciting. One year you could be working with the Police, like I do now, in a few years time- who knows what? There’s so much good stuff out there- things like GDS [the Government Digital Service] as well. It is exciting, you can actually see change happening. It’s a good time to be a civil servant."

So how does the fast stream recruitment programme fit into the civil service as a whole?

The senior civil servant managing the Technology in Business [TiB] stream, Jan Ford, sees it as a “fundamental part of the civil service reform plan- absolutely fundamental- both in terms of the digital/technology but also by driving reform and introducing a new attitude towards change and pace.”

Chloe says she sees their role as fundamentally one of "change leadership", but also as a "pool of resource, a set of people with a variety of backgrounds and skills who can be deployed anywhere throughout the civil service so we go to wherever the need is. So when you’re talking about fundamental reform of the civil service, and promoting change and innovation, I see us as "change agents" but also as a conduit to share learning throughout the different organisations and departments."

Chris agrees regarding the importance of leading reform, saying, "The idea of having this cadre of people who can go in and be a bit disruptive where they need to be and still make a real impact on the ground- it really is quite a privilege as well as a challenge to be able to do that. And it gives you the opportunity to learn a lot while you’re doing it."

The application process is rigorous; indeed the programme has won awards for the assessment and selection procedure alone. It includes a number of online tests and a one-day assessment centre and then, for the Technology in Business candidates, a final selection board.

When asked what motivated them to apply, the candidates are united by their interest in technology, but otherwise offer differing perspectives.

For Gus, he had "already crossed off a couple of boxes", discarding law or the City as potential career paths. However, he says that government was not the immediate option- rather that “it was a sort of realisation that with the traits I have, the education, with the skills I’ve acquired, they’ve set me up for this career. And when I got to my assessment centre, I found myself in an environment where I could use those skills for the first time. I stumbled into it accidentally on purpose.”

Chloe also "never had a set-in-stone career path", but says that she feels her “passion for working with people, getting involved in lots of different projects, learning new things, having different experiences and being able to contribute to society” all equipped her to work in the civil service.

In particular, she says TiB is the best fast stream as "you have to have all the sort of capabilities the other streams have, but you’ve also got to acquire loads of different technology-related skills. And I think because technology is a key facilitator and enabler of- well- everything these days, this is the best way to get those skills."

Jan explains that people with a technical degree are in the minority of applicants for the TiB fast stream. She adds, "Of course they are all tested for their passion and interest in technology and digital, but it’s really aptitude and attitude we’re looking for. That’s proven over and over again by the scale and quality of what these guys are delivering pretty much the moment they walk through the door."

Comparing his experience in the civil service so far to that of his peers in other sectors, Gus says, "As far as entry level jobs go from leaving university, I think the fast stream is the best; it’s certainly the most interesting. I’ve got mates who are training to become accountants. And their entry level stuff having just left university is so boring. But in the fast stream we get a totally different project every six to nine months and a huge amount of responsibility.

"And actually you sit in positions where you’re relatively close to the seat of power. You do a lot of cool things, whereas if you’re at, say a management consultancy, often you can just be crossing off the years until you hit associate level where you might actually do something you want, and this is not like that. We have self-determination over our careers."

Speaking to the three enthusiastic recruits- all part of the next generation coming into the civil service with what are often referred to as instinctive "digital native" skills- they could not be further away from the traditional, staid, unchanging stereotypes that frustrate so many civil servants.

Chloe says, “Nobody could think of us as bowler hat-wearing frumps or anything like that. Each of us brings our own different qualities, and that’s what makes us so helpful and creative as a whole- because we each bring a different perspective. Obviously we form our own impressions when we join the civil service, and every single person I’ve met and had the privilege to work with has been willing to discuss what’s going on, their impressions of how things are going, and so on.

“So we’re not blind to understanding that we need to change and evolve and adapt and become a bit more flexible, but I think everybody is on board and willing to get involved. So I don’t think that stereotype of being stuck in their ways and just following due process is an accurate reflection of where we are.”

However, while Gus agrees that the ‘bowler hat-wearing civil servant’ typecast is difficult to translate to the 21st century, he says “there are aspects of that stereotype that are quite good.

"It’s someone who is comfortable operating in their working environment and who is completely impartial. The big civil service reforms of the 19th century were the greatest gift to British government in years because finally we had a strong, impartial and highly respected career, we take these incredibly hard entrance exams which were set up 150 years ago, and I think that culture of knowing you’re in a career that is enormously highly esteemed is great."

He adds, "But we’ve been very fortunate to come into the civil service at this particular time, I think. No period has seen as much change to the profession."

It’s fair to say the TiBers’ enthusiasm is genuine- and infectious. They certainly seem to feel they are in the right place, at the right time and empowered to make changes and take important decisions. It’s unsurprising given how forthcoming senior civil servants are in voicing their support for the scheme.

Indeed, the head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake responded to us, commending the quality of the recruits. He said, "I'm always overwhelmed by the number of enthusiastic, talented graduates who apply for a career with us. Enhancing digital capability is fundamental to civil service Reform, which is why I am particularly pleased to see the numbers already applying for the Technology in Business Fast Stream.

"We are looking for more young people who have what it takes to help create the modern, efficient, responsive civil service that the UK deserves - digital by default in its skills and with a mindset that always takes as its starting point what the service user wants.”

Government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell agreed, saying the TiB fast stream "offers an exceptional opportunity to be part of an unprecedented period of change in the UK civil service. TiBers are the natural pool of talent from which the next generation of digital and technology leaders and disruptive thinkers in government will emerge.

"From Day One, they are expected to challenge conventional thinking. We are looking to them to drive through reforms from every assignment they undertake, helping to build capability in the civil service and design and deliver public services that start with what the user needs, not government."

Those interested in the fast stream have until 31 October to apply.

This piece first appeared on Government Computing