Issue 240: 2020 07 02: Let’s Have Competence

02 July 2020

Let’s Have Competence

Not Competencies.

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

“But the opposite of incompetent is competent, no?” my German business client, Helmut, insisted.  “No,” I replied.  “Just ‘competent’ is not enough.  You need to say ‘very competent’ or ‘really competent’.”  This exchange came about because Helmut had described a British subordinate as “competent” on his annual assessment form and been surprised when the man complained of “being damned with faint praise”.  After trying to explain what that phrase meant, I made little progress on getting Helmut to understand why the Brits should regard being called competent an insult.  He shook his head, exasperated: “But what is wrong with ‘competent’?  He can do his job well.  So, he is competent!”  I silently agreed.

It was about the same time as this conversation that my world of management training became infected by a new lexical disease.  Its source must have been some Human Resource Department, which, in HR’s forever-doomed wish to be taken seriously by their colleagues in Finance, Production and Sales, had misread Business School academic papers of the 1970s and 1980s  (e.g. “Testing for Competence Rather than for Intelligence”, David McLelland, 1973) and come up with the term “competency”.  Very soon all us training suppliers had to make sure that our management courses would enable the participants, or more exactly their HR managers, to tick as many competency boxes as possible.  I would be presented with a list of competencies and asked which ones my company’s courses covered.  Not enough and we wouldn’t get the business.  The trouble was that nobody agreed on what competency meant.  They still don’t.  Here are a couple of definitions:

Competencies are a collection of knowledge, skills, behavior and power of judging which can cause competence in people without having enough practice and specialized knowledge – College Of Registered Nurses Of British Columbia (2009);

Competency is a series of knowledge, abilities, skills, experiences and behaviors, which leads to the effective performance of individual’s activities. Competency is measurable … – the ARZESH Competency Model (2018).


One thing was always clear to me and my non-HR business clients (including Helmut): someone with a long list of competencies was too often not competent enough to do their job properly.

By the time I left the training world three years ago, many companies had either abandoned or were seriously questioning the value of this competency box-ticking process.  As a bunch of Australian academics said in a paper published in 2011 “research has found that it is not easy to assess competencies and competence development.”  Too right, mates.

Unfortunately, the UK’s Civil Service (which, like so much of government and the National Health Service during the Blair years, was told to ape the practices of the business world) has until now been in thrall to competencies.  Only this year has “The Civil Service Competency Framework”, with its “ten common competencies, separated into three clusters…” (enough! enough!) been replaced by something called “Civil Service Success Profiles” (whoopee!).  I should not mock.  These ‘Success Profiles’ look good.  For a start, they are understandable.

But before we have a brief look at them, ask yourself what effect some twenty years of working within the Competency Framework have done to the people in the Civil Service, the NHS and Public Health England who have in the past few months been tasked by their political masters to procure Personal Protective Equipment, ensure co-ordination between hospitals and care homes, set up a workable Test, Track and Trace system, deliver key data to those who need it, all in double-quick time?  Many of us rightly blame the incompetence of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and the majority of the Cabinet for the string of failures in dealing with this pandemic.  But they and the British people have been ill-served by too many incompetent civil servants and NHS managers.

I spent three and a half years in the Civil Service straight after university in the late 1970s.  I have a couple of friends who have only recently retired from senior positions in Whitehall.  I am sure they did their jobs well.  But I would argue that they were so competent not because of the formulaic, competency-linked training they received in later years but because of the practical, on-the-job training they (and I) got at the hands of senior civil servants who had been recruited and learned their trade during and immediately after World War Two.  That five-year crisis and the reforms which followed it, most notably the creation of the NHS 72 years ago this week, also created a Civil Service full of the best and brightest in the land.  And, Mr Cummings, containing people from every class with minds as agile and mindsets as iconoclastic as yours.

There is hope though, dear reader. There is not space here to describe in detail the Civil Service’s new five Success Profiles – Ability, Behaviour, Experience, Strengths, Technical.  To know more, look at the article Civil Service Interviews.

Here is part of the explanation of one of the five, “Strengths”:

“This is based on the premise if you do something regularly and with enjoyment, it becomes a strength. Simply put, when someone is doing something they love and are naturally suited to, they will be more productive, industrious and successful.”

I know of no HR manager who could have written that.

A good guide as to what has ailed the Civil Service and what is being done to make it serve ministers and us better was given by Michael Gove in a speech on Saturday 27 June – The Privilege of Public Service (the Ditchley Annual Lecture).  I urge you to read it in full if you have not already done so.  It is one of the most wide-ranging and thought-provoking speeches by a British politician that I have ever read (and far more worthy of our attention than the bombast and double-counting delivered by Gove’s boss on Tuesday).

Here are some excerpts (try linking the Success Profiles to them):

“… there are a limited number, even in the Senior Civil Service, who have qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions – and these are essential to public policy decisions…

That means we need to reform not just recruitment, but training.  We need to ensure more policy makers and decision makers feel comfortable discussing the Monte Carlo method or Bayesian statistics, more of those in Government are equipped to read a balance sheet and discuss what constitutes an appropriate return on investment, more are conversant with the commercial practices of those from whom we procure services and can negotiate the right contracts and enforce them appropriately.” 

“Submissions, the papers which are prepared to guide ministerial decisions, and which were once the glory of our Civil Service, have become in far too many cases formulaic, over-long, jargon-heavy and back-covering.  The ability to make a tight, evidence-rich, fact-based, argument which doesn’t waste words or evade hard choices is critical to effective Government.”

“Too much current Civil Service training is about vapid abstractions such as ‘Collaborating Better’ rather than about what works in classroom instruction or how to interrogate climate modelling or to find out what really goes on in the preparation of Crown Prosecution cases which leads to so many cracked trials.”

“We must be able to promote those with proven expertise in their current role to perform the same, or similar,  functions with greater status and higher rewards without them thinking they have to move away from the areas they know and love to rise in their profession.  We would not ask an Orthopaedics Registrar to become a psychiatrist in order to make consultant.  So why should we require an expert in agriculture negotiations with the EU to supervise the Universal Credit IT system in order to see their career progress?”

A competent speech indeed.



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