The annual civil service people survey is a great annual diversion, juxtaposing low levels of staff satisfaction and confidence in the Ministry of Justice’s leadership on the one hand, and hyper-positive confidence of senior management spin on the other.

This year my colleague Catherine Baksi reported it as news - in the past we’ve decided it’s a diary item. It’ll probably continue to alternate between the ‘funny’ and sad slots on our pages.

The appeal is obvious – in a year of heavy legal aid cuts, it’s nice to see the ministy’s leadership ‘getting some’. My instinct is that the senior ranks of the MoJ deserve this – but let me explain that.

It is at one level to any organisation’s credit both that it asks staff what they think, and that the staff in return feel they can give an honest reply – some of it difficult reading for their senior colleagues. Plenty of law firms and legal departments conduct similar exercises.

So can I suggest it is not the answers to the questions set in these surveys that draw derision – internally and externally – but the management spin that accompanies their release. That and the poor follow-up that flows from the poor self-knowledge evident in that spin.

The MoJ clearly has a problem with staff confidence in senior management. To me it looks as if confidence starts to seep away at the point when the spin is bolted on to these results.

If you are among the 69% of staff unable to say they would ‘recommend it as a "great place to work"’, then to read that ‘staff are confident in the leadership and management of change in the department’ makes you feel less listened to than if the survey was not done in the first place.

The default position of a management that lacks self-knowledge viewing such results is to often to say any combination of the following:

  • We are on a change journey, and people are uncomfortable with change – they do however need to embrace it.
  • Look how much dead-wood we clearly have in this organisation – we need to import more highly motivated dynamism. Some consultants might also help.
  • We welcome the fact that 1% more of our staff think we’re doing a good job than last year.

But to take those staff approval figures up to less risible levels, that is of course the wrong approach.

Staff need to see some changes that result from the things they said in previous surveys. Senior managers will need to start by talking to staff about the faults they identified in the survey – and that conversation can’t begin ‘I’m glad you are 1% more positive about the job we’re doing on this change journey, which I take to mean we are heading in the right direction – let’s talk about why you find change hard…’.

It may even be that the masterplan from which senior managers are working is at fault. After all, if one is prone to misdescribing something as basic as a staff survey, is there not a danger that some big decisions are being based on a world view that’s a bit iffy in the round?

There are businesses who say to their customers ‘You told us what you wanted from us, we listened and we’ve changed’. While organisations, public or private, are not run for the benefit of their staff, there are many that would run better if it’s a line the staff could hear, delivered with conviction and good reason, a bit more often.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor

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