An innovative new way to assess candidates for promotion – 12 months on, has it worked?

During the summer of 2019 VCA Ltd were at Shropshire FRS HQ to help with their firefighter recruitment process. With over 90 candidates there wasn’t much downtime, but over a coffee we chatted to Development Officer Donna Trowsdale who spoke about making improvements to their promotion processes.

Almost 2 years later and we have spent the last 12 months working with Shropshire to deliver online, Leadership Quality-based promotion processes for Crew to Area Managers. We’ve assessed 233 candidates, facilitated 51 coaching feedback sessions and have helped embed a new system that both candidates and managers are happy with.

Together we’ve come a long way! So, what has been learnt?

Feedback Sessions

Running a trial works

In spring 2020 we ran assessments for crew to station managers.

This included a briefing session, the CPG exercises (case study and roleplay) and feedback reports. The trial was run in full consultation with the Rep Bodies and we made sure we could gather post-process candidate feedback. The results were overwhelmingly positive; the candidates liked the process, the rep bodies felt that the new system was fair and robust, and the organisation had delivered an objective and cost-saving new method to evaluate performance.

Six months later we ran the same process again, using different exercise materials (case study and roleplay set 2). The CPG system was officially confirmed as Shropshire’s assessment process

Annual promotion activity works

From a candidate’s point of, knowing when assessment activity is happening allows time to think about where you are in your career, whether you will be ready and gives plenty of time to prepare.

For an organisation, the predictability makes the process smoother and more manageable. It avoids the stress of trying to pull a last-minute assessment together; all the individual elements from briefing to feedback fit into a predetermined time-table. There’s more breathing space and less drama.

An online system works

Traditionally, FRS’s have had concerns about using an online promotions platform, ranging from the reliability of the IT set-up to how well candidates would manage. The pandemic actually helped in this regard; video conferencing was suddenly the hosting norm from team meetings to birthday celebrations; almost overnight it was clear what the advantages of an online approach to assessment were.

With careful planning, and plenty of information shared at every step, the CPG system has performed well. There have been hiccups; for instance, issues with logging in (for security reasons passwords are necessarily complex), and sticking to a timetable can be as challenging on-line as it is at an assessment centre! But open communication has been key, allowing us to troubleshoot problems and tweak processes.

IT checks work

Going over a step-by-step checklist with someone from IT is never time wasted! Whether it’s making sure the screen resolution is correct, internal software is up-to-date or that phone lines are working, it makes sure everything runs to plan when it matters.

Using external assessors works

  • Professional assessors can deliver detailed assessments in less time than non-professional assessors, freeing up HR department for other essential projects.
  • Psychologists draw links between exercise results and attitudes and behaviour which underpin assessment performance.
  • As performance coaches they can deliver feedback in reports and over the phone applying coaching principles to facilitate development.
  • They are impartial and unbiased, ensuring that the promotions process is fair and robust.
  • They are very skilled multi-taskers! They roleplay and assess simultaneously, keeping the costs of assessment lower than usual.

Data gathering works

Candidates complete a short feedback survey after each exercise, which is how we know how they feel about the process. Using that information, we can continually adapt and improve. We also know which candidates have additional time, and by tracking results we can see that the exercises don’t have any adverse impact on candidates who are neuro-diverse. With over 12 months of data we have now been able to analyse performance results in detail, from exercise reliability to useful observations about the leadership qualities.

FRS context exercises work

Whether assessing on-call and wholetime firefighters, or control room staff, the fictious FRS context exercises mean there’s no advantage to anyone with particular experience because all relevant information is included in the exercise. The familiar context helps candidates see the relevance of the tasks and removes some of the stress. The only levels this doesn’t apply to is Firefighter recruitment (to avoid advantage to on-call applying to be wholetime) and Area Manager CPG, which uses the same format of exercises but in a fictious non-FRS work environment (as per best practice at this level).

Feedback coaching calls work

These calls were introduced after the trial, to meet the needs of candidates who wanted more in terms of discussion on their performance and some direction over next steps, and to take the time pressure off internal staff for whom delivering feedback on unfamiliar exercises would be more challenging. The feedback session quickly evolved to a more ‘coaching style’, drawing on both the thirst of candidates to learn more, and the skills of the psychologists to provide additional support. Candidates report finding these sessions practical and rewarding.

Has anything not worked?

  • We introduced an extra page to our feedback reports to cover ‘developmental guidance’. As much as feedback on exercise performance is essential, its also useful to have an idea how to take it forward, to facilitate workplace improvement. This section is designed to offer suggestions of next steps for a candidate to action themselves or in conjunction with a line manager or mentor.
  • We’ve added a text to speech function, so candidates with additional requirements can listen to exercise instructions, instead, or as well as, reading them. We’re hoping to soon include this option on all screens, for all candidates, to account for preferences as well as neurodiversity.
  • Making sense of feedback reports isn’t always easy; we added a ‘red, amber, green’ rating to each Leadership Quality so candidates can see clearly where their strengths and development needs lie.
  • We’ve improved our auto-save function so candidate case study answers are saved every few seconds. A lot can happen in a minute or so, and it’s important to make sure any glitches won’t mean the candidate loses out.
  • In adhering rigidly to the rules of GDPR, we were missing out on information important to our internal monitoring. We still need to avoid keeping identifiable candidate data, but we do need to be able to link results to demographic information in order to robustly monitor adverse impact. Through a change to the way we identify candidates we can now request demographic data, we will be able to meet our monitoring responsibilities more easily.


When it comes to partnership working, a collaboration between a public sector organisation and a limited company might not be the first example which springs to mind. But the development of the CPG is very much that. From the fact that we have worked with the UK FRS since 2002, including an internal role, to the VCA FRS Assessment Forum which allows HR professionals to influence what we develop and how it is delivered for their Service; we have shown a unique approach to working hand in hand with our clients.