The Civil Service Bonus Story


Widely reported in the press today was the issue of MoD civil service bonus payments. In the usual pattern of these things the press pick up on a story and then wheel in the usual pundits and the family of dead or injured service personnel to reinforce the premise of the story.

The general thrust of the story is usually that lazy pencil pushing Sir Humphries are feathering their nest whilst hard pressed squaddies have to buy their own ammunition.

The opposition will lazily follow the press position and spout how it is outrageous, just wait till they get into power, we will show them etc etc.

The blogosphere will chip in as well, usually with a few cracking sweary posts.

Then what usually follows is a half baked rebuttal from the MoD and assorted government ministers, but the damage will have already been done and nothing will change the perception that the MoD couldn’t find its corporate arse with both hands.

This is the standard of considered debate in the press these days, both the mainstream media and opposition have a shockingly poor grasp of the reality.

The MoD revealed, in an answer to a parliamentary question from Liam Fox MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Defence,) that it had awarded just over £42 million pounds in bonus payments to civil servants in the seven months from April to October this year with another 5 months to go until year end.

This was reported by all the press and media outlets, each competing with each other to show how disgusted they and the general public were, quoting opposition politicians, ‘defence sources’ and dead or wounded servicemen’s family members.

Absolutely disgusting

What exactly have they done to earn that? How do they justify it?

I find it ludicrous

It makes me angry that they are being paid £47 million to pat themselves on the backs


Money for old rope

Liam Fox, commenting on the figures said “At a time when the department is reeling from the Nimrod report and Gray report, many of those in the Armed Forces will be aghast that bonuses are being paid on the basis of outstanding performance, this will only increase the view that the armed forces and the MoD administration are hugely out of balance.”

2 days after it released the information to Liam Fox and in a reactive move the MoD issued a statement today defending the bonus payments and its civil service staff. The Public and Commercial Services Union weighed in worth a strong defence. In fact the PCS Union railed against waste in the MoD equipment programme (as if MoD civil servants have nothing to do with that) and even had a go at non deployable military numbers, many due to injuries received whilst on operations, whilst complaining about Liam Fox trying to drive a wedge between the uniform and civil service branches of the MoD, irony evidently not a strong point of the PCS.

Alan Johnson MP (Home Secretary) defended the MoD but confused operational allowances for civil service staff deploying to operational theatres with bonus payments, not the same thing Alan.

Finally, in a clear case of tail wagging dog, Gordon Brown promised to examine the issue.

Lazy thinking from the media and opposition, a desire to characterise the Government as criminally incompetent and a general ignorance all round contribute to the characterisation of the civil service as ‘pen pushers’ whilst our brave boys go wanting.

It is the widely held belief that people should be rewarded for excess effort and improved effect and there is nothing intrinsically bad about this. In order to apply this fairly and consistently across a large number of employees some performance management system must be used, leaving things to manager’s discretion leaves the system open to abuse. As usual with these things, the devil is in the detail so very expensive management and HR consultants would have devised a fiendishly complicated system.

In order to depress pensionable basic salary the bonus is seen as a top up rather than on top payment. Most of the Civil Service would rather a higher basic pay rather than having a bonus payment, of course they would and the vast majority of payments were quite modest anyway.

The MoD stated that bonus payments don’t affect equipment budgets, which is a ridiculous statement and one borne of a culture of having budgets set in stone, of course it all comes from the overall MoD budget.

The Real Issues

Besides the woeful level of reporting and debate we think the real issues are as follows;

  • There is a widespread ignorance of what civil servants actually do in the MoD and the benefit, both operational and financial, that they deliver. The MoD needs to make a much better case for its employees rather than relying on the same old clichés, many of them are ex service personnel or reserves and the vast majority are in non administrative roles.
  • The MoD public relations unit needs to focus on being proactive rather than reactive, it took 2 days to come out with a half baked rebuttal . In every single case of note in recent times the MoD has seemingly gone out of its way to seek out banana skins.
  • The fundamental problem with performance related pay and performance management systems is that, unlike in the public sector where profit is a simple and easily measured target, the public sector cannot create a simple metric for success on which to reward performance. This leads to ever more creative means of measuring anything other than real world performance. Bonus becomes an integral part of the remuneration package and a massive amount of effort is expended on meeting these artificial targets.

Much activity is process based so scope for meaningful improvement is limited and this leads to yet more nonsensical means of measuring improvement.

In light of the Gray report on acquisition and the Haddon-Cave report on air safety and the Nimrod crash which clearly paint a picture of a dysfunctional department the notion that performance is good enough to pay bonus payments is alien to most.

Activity at all levels becomes focussed on targets rather than effectiveness and this has been observed across all areas of the public sector.

So not only is it massively divisive, it absorbs huge effort in administration and more importantly diverts the activity of the MoD towards meeting targets not achieving meaningful outputs.

It simply needs scrapping and replacing with a very limited discretionary scheme or one that can be linked clearly to cost savings or combat effectiveness.

  • That the MoD can even think of paying bonus payments when it can’t find £20million for TA training speaks volumes about priority setting, decision making and the inherent inflexibility of departmental budgets.
  • The media, Government Ministers, unions and everyone else concerned need to try and educate themselves before spouting their usual drivel.
  • Liam Fox needs to improve his performance immeasurably because it is likely he will be the next Secretary of State for Defence, this is an important position and one in which he will need to demonstrate he can harness the military and civil service for maximum effect in Afghanistan and the forthcoming strategic security and defence review. If he assumes that bashing the civil service will endear him to the military then he is very much mistaken.

Change the record Liam and start acting like a future minister

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