Five things I’ve learned about GCS and the Civil Service

I joined the Civil Service by accident.

After 5 years at a dynamic but under-resourced insight agency in the private sector, I left my job highly skilled and burnt out without another role lined-up; a move diplomatically deemed ‘brave’ by recruiters. After a few short stints, I saw a Strategic Comms Insight vacancy that fitted the bill. Perhaps naively, it was only when people asked sceptically, ‘Why would you want to join the Civil Service?’ that the doubt crept in. I imagined a faceless mass of bureaucracy greeting me on my first day. Turns out, not quite.

Four years on, here’s what I’ve learned.

1) Acronyms. Everywhere

‘OGDs have contributed to the PASS. DOCs, SpAds and DGs to view ahead of Star Chamber’. Come again? Luckily for me, I enjoy learning new languages so deciphering Civil Service-lingo in my first few weeks of joining was easy enough. Hats off to any department that makes its own jargon-busting dictionary; a helping hand for new recruits. After mastering the basics, you’ll see the acronyms for the timesavers they are, and might even opt to imaginatively create your own.

For context: OGDs (other government departments), PASS (professional assurance), DOCs (Director of Communications), SpAds (Special Advisors), DGs (Director Generals).

2) Yes, it’s process-heavy but…

For good reason. This was one of the biggest adjustments for me. As someone who enjoyed autonomy and fast delivery in previous roles, the prospect of layers of procedure didn’t appeal. But in time it feels more like a safety net than a hindrance. Things still move quickly, albeit within defined processes. 

The nature of communications is collaborative in most sectors. Within government, there’s additional risk, sensitivities and scrutiny. Inevitably, there’s going to be a long list of stakeholders to align the views of, which makes it all the more satisfying once you get the green light. Not all projects see the light of day – you might find something you’ve worked on for months gets shelved due to sudden changes in the political landscape. That also comes with the territory. It helps to adapt quickly in those situations. As cliché as it sounds, there’s usually something valuable you learn from that experience, or can reuse for a future project. 

3) You’re supported

These last few years have put employer support networks into sharp focus. Managing my own mental health during the first lockdown was a challenge. Then, after losing my Dad to coronavirus suddenly and unexpectedly in 2020, it became more important to me to see workplace support in action.

Enter the Civil Service Race Forum (CSRF). CSRF was one of the most proactive and emotionally intelligent forms of support I’d come across in a work setting. It’s a network of more than 12,000 members across the Civil Service, Arms-Length Bodies and partners, which aims to advance diversity, inclusion and equality. Despite its name, its work goes beyond race. I found comfort in its comms and events, which spoke to the mood of the time, or at least mine. 

Its tone was authentic, empowering and empathetic. I found it diverse in thought, valuing lived experience and unafraid to tackle heavy themes such as racism, social inequality and bereavement. I respect its boldness and the safe spaces it provides for open dialogue and perspectives. There’s a host of inclusive networks across the Civil Service, where you can find your own sense of community. 

4) Work/home balance

Everyone can help create a positive working culture through language and action. Something refreshing I’ve seen while working in Strategic Comms is the flexible attitude to working styles.

While there are some busier periods, I’ve found it backs up its commitment to flexible working. Whether that’s due to health, childcare or other personal circumstances. No one size fits all. It’s reassuring to see an employer walk the walk when it comes to positive working culture.

5) Development galore

One of the great things about GCS is the opportunity to gain new skills within and beyond your own Department, without having to change roles. For me, this included leading my Department’s input to the GCS Year of Marketing in 2019 via a series of events, co-creating the 2020 GCS Leadership Framework and recently authoring part of a cross-government Diversity and Inclusion language guide. All while working with new colleagues across government. 

Also through GCS, I’ve been a mentor for the last 9 months, which I’ve loved. It’s such a rewarding experience for anyone who wants to share their expertise to help others. 

Acting on interests outside my day-to-day role has kept things mentally stimulating and varied, while developing my skills:

  • regularly interviewing candidates, as a member of the Civil Service Diverse Recruitment Panel, for example. GCS interns, Impact candidates and cross-government applicants 
  • co-leading my Department’s 2021/22 Campaigns People Engagement Group
  • supporting OGDs and gaining insight into how other Departments work, via secondment 

Whether it’s shadowing, mentoring or accelerated development schemes, GCS pretty much has it covered.

With communications teams continuing to seek candidates with diverse skills, it’s encouraging to be part of an organisation that has so much opportunity to offer. Not too shabby for an ‘accidental’ job. 

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  • Kiran Chahal (1)