All aboard for a new way of training

Written by Matt Ross on 6 May 2011 in Feature

The days of departments selecting their own training providers are ending, as all generic learning is channelled through new body Civil Service Learning.

With the forthcoming demise of the National School of Government, the provision of civil service training is about to undergo a radical overhaul. Here, the Cabinet Office sets out its plans for reformand below Matt Ross analyses them. 

School’s out: the Cabinet Office explains the future of civil service training

We are facing unprecedented challenges: reducing the deficit, and delivering a raft of radical reforms to achieve the government’s three priorities of growth, social aspiration and modernising public services. To achieve all this, the civil service has to look radically at the way it does things to make sure that we, like every other part of the public sector, can do better with less.

The government and all permanent secretaries are convinced that developing our people is critical to our success. We also know from the people survey that we could do much better. So, the challenge for us has been to look innovatively at how we can get the best from all our learning and development experience with much less resource.

The answer has come from the Next Generation HR programme. Our traditional way of “doing” learning and development (L&D) – department by department – has resulted in lots of duplication of generic learning. For example, there are over 100 individual functions supporting L&D across government; there are over 450 different courses being offered in people management, and 294 on leadership. In any economic climate, this is inefficient; in the current climate it is simply not sustainable. And it does not enable us to develop and teach a common way of doing things in the civil service.

The solution is to establish a new civil service delivery model – a small shared facility, buying the courses that we all need just once and delivering those that can only be done in-house, eg. Basecamp and Fast Stream. Based in the Home Office, led by the Cabinet Office and working for all of us, Civil Service Learning (CSL) came into effect from the beginning of April as part of the Next Generation HR programme. We know that by buying our learning and development centrally we will save around £90m a year, but these changes go beyond efficiencies and will shift the way learning and development is delivered.

We have to take account of all the latest thinking and evidence of the best way that people learn. In the past, we have relied heavily on the traditional classroom-based approach to learning, but the highest-performing organisations – we have contacted 21 successful private companies about their training – have moved beyond this. For them, the key is a strong focus on the skills that people need to do their job so that e-learning and on-the-job experience combine to drive higher performance.

It is also the mantra of many of these companies, and of government departments, that the best learning comes from hearing directly from those who have undertaken the roles and experienced the challenges and the opportunities, rather than third-hand from a teacher. We’ve followed this model with the senior civil service’s Basecamp training and the Core Learning Programme, and the feedback proves it works. Now we need to do much more of it.

There are some tough consequences, though, for people currently working in learning and development. The introduction of CSL will mean that departments need to reduce the number of staff they have working in L&D, and those they retain will focus on learning specific to their business. There will be a small number across the civil service co-ordinating access of the central provision within their departments.

During the transition year – April 2011 through to April 2012 – the National School of Government (NSG) will support Civil Service Learning and continue to deliver learning to the civil service. During this period we will be looking towards finding one prime supplier, which will then bring in and manage smaller suppliers to deliver civil service learning and development. We are hopeful that some of the people and assets from NSG and its Sunningdale facility will form part of the new arrangements, albeit outside the civil service.

In the meantime, the NSG has to live within its means. It will be continuing to deliver training in support of Civil Service Learning, and will be transferring some of its resources to CSL to deliver training in areas that we all agree should remain in-house. The NSG’s leadership will also be working with the Cabinet Office to find ways to reduce staff and other expenditure in the short term.

These are big changes, but they are the right ones. They will enable us to build the capability we need, but at a much reduced cost.

CSW’s Matt Ross asks the key players to explain what it all means – both for training officials, and for officials’ training

For many months, civil servants involved in learning and development (L&D) have known that major change is on the cards: long before the change of government a year ago, the ‘Next Generation HR’ programme was heading for a radical shake-up of training – and the coalition’s focus on cost-cutting was only going to increase the pressure for reform.

Well, now that change has arrived; and though the planned reforms aren’t quite as dramatic as some of the abandoned alternatives, they are likely to herald both large-scale job losses across the government’s widely distributed training operations, and very significant changes to the training techniques and options available to all of the UK’s civil servants. As our news article and the Cabinet Office’s explanation demonstrate, this is probably the biggest set of reforms to civil service training since the Civil Service College was established in the mid-’60s.

Back then, the civil service was still a proudly generalist organisation: the college – conceived by Harold Wilson and established by Ted Heath – was designed to professionalise the service and instil a stronger sense of collective, corporate identity. And it’s made a huge contribution here, establishing the need for its core work so effectively that even under the new plans, all the elements of training that are required right across the civil service – but not beyond it – will still be delivered directly by a civil service body, Civil Service Learning (CSL).

However, the college often struggled to expand its work out from that core role; and since the mid-’90s, successive governments have tinkered with it in attempts to modernise its offer and to save money. Under John Major, then-Cabinet Office minister Stephen Dorrell tried to dismantle it, before turning it into an executive agency. Under Tony Blair, it became part of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies before re-emerging as the National School of Government (NSG), dependent on selling training across Whitehall for a living.

Since then, despite attempts to diversify its services and move into consultancy, the NSG has not had an easy time. As departments sent their training money elsewhere and revenues fell, it launched a Core Learning Programme funded by a per-head levy on departments; but some departments and agencies refused to pay up, arguing that they could find better training more cost-effectively elsewhere. While the NSG broke even during the last financial year, its operating environment was not an easy one.

Big plans

The Cabinet Office’s new plans are, however, much more than an attempt to rescue a troubled organisation or create a more workable business model. One key aim, says CSL director Jerry Arnott, is to save money by squeezing the number of training functions across government and pushing much of the commissioning and management work through his new body. CSL “is about not only providing access to higher quality and greater choice, but also reducing the amount of waste and inefficiency and duplication,” he says.

Indeed, the civil service’s current training management system is so dispersed and opaque that nobody even knows how much is spent on training annually: in recent years, figures have ranged between £200m and £500m. “The amount of training and development that occurs across the civil service is enormous, but the total cost is unknown,” says Arnott. “Having said that, in the last year we do know that we’ve been looking at a significant drop; almost a cliff-edge drop.” That drop, of course, hasn’t done the NSG any favours: “Over the last year and a half there’s been a marked tightening” of the total civil service training spend, says NSG chief executive Rod Clark.

So CSL has been created to produce a ‘Common Curriculum’, (see below) offering all the generic skills that people require to work anywhere in the civil service; to populate the curriculum with mixed-format learning courses using a range of in-house and private sector provision; and to police departments’ channelling of all such training through a procurement system that is to be operated by a private contractor.

Because Arnott’s own boss is the Home Office’s HR director-general Kevin White – who took charge of the training brief when responsibilities for developing Next Generation HR were divvied up between the civil service’s handful of top HR bosses – CSL will be physically based within the Home Office; a fact that raises eyebrows in some quarters. However, Arnott insists that “CSL is a civil service organisation, not a Home Office organisation. We’re purely based there because the Cabinet Office would be too small to provide the support we require. But as we position ourselves and market and communicate, there will be no reference to the Home Office.”

Common interests

The Common Curriculum is being developed for CSL by the NSG, and comprises six key strands (see box overleaf). Crucial to the reforms is the principle that any department requiring training in matters covered by the curriculum must get that training through CSL – either by tapping into CSL-managed open-access e-learning and training courses funded by a small per-head levy on departments, or by procuring through systems run by the main contractor.

Arnott points out, though, that parts of the Common Curriculum will still be managed – and largely delivered – by civil servants working directly for CSL; private training providers will largely be used to deliver L&D where the civil service shares a common need with the private, voluntary and wider public sectors. “We’re not going out into the marketplace for bespoke requirements for the civil service,” Arnott says. “We may access external speakers or business schools, but we alone will design and deliver them.” CSL’s training team are likely to be NSG veterans: “That in-house delivery capability is in effect being migrated from the NSG,” explains Clark. “Some of our products and services will join CSL.”

Much of the training retained in-house will be familiar to many civil servants: it is likely to include the senior civil service training course Basecamp, Fast Stream development, and the Common Curriculum’s Civil Service Way programme – much of which is based on elements of the NSG’s existing Core Learning Programme. Clark argues that it’s important, in order to “maintain ownership of the civil service culture and ethos”, that these elements of training are delivered by civil servants: “You’re never going to want to privatise that: you can use people from all different backgrounds [to deliver training], but the ownership has got to be retained.
“If you’re going to get the civil service to move on and improve as well as retain what’s good, you need to draw on people within the organisation to champion that,” Clark continues.

“You’ll want to create cadres of civil servants who recognise that they’re part of a group with a shared set of values that they need to retain and nurture.” Outside these core civil service skills, however, lies a much bigger training requirement for which, he adds, “you want to be able to go out to a wider market and find the best available.” These latter courses will, says Arnott, cover skills such as “generic leadership and management development, and all the core skills areas like communications, financial management, IT training, health and safety training”.

Winning buy-in

Asked how CSL will ensure that departments are happy with the Common Curriculum’s offer, Arnott emphasises that it “isn’t being dreamt up in a dark corner”. The permanent secretaries and the Civil Service Capability Board – the civil service’s HR leadership panel – “will be the over-riding strategic decision-making body that will sponsor the Common Curriculum”, he says. “So I’ll look to that group to give me key priorities in terms of investment into generic learning.”

Alongside that “top-down steer”, Arnott will also get a “bottom-up or sideways steer” from the departments: “I’ll have a leadership group with representatives from all departments, meeting on a monthly basis, and that will be my eyes and ears for what the need is. So if new priorities are emerging that are common to all departments, we’ll reflect that in enhancements to the Common Curriculum.”

Indeed, Arnott says that CSL will be “almost an extension to departments; an enabling function” quite unlike the arm’s-length NSG. “We’ll manage it collectively,” he says. “I’ll be held accountable by my peers for making sure we deliver what the business wants.”

Passing through the portal

So that’s the sweetener. But to ensure that departments really do get on board with the new generic training programmes, CSL will also be running what Arnott calls a “procurement gateway process” designed to check that any department buying training outside the system really does have a specific and unique business need – for training in tax systems at HMRC, for example, or in pollution monitoring at the environment department.

Such “business-specific or technical training” is, Arnott emphasises, “not within my scope”. But to ensure that the training on a department’s wish-list really can’t be found through CSL, “any new procurement over £10,000 will have to go through that gateway, which will ensure that they have a valid, business-specific case and that no other departments have an existing solution – so we’ll scan the system and make sure that we don’t go out to market when we’ve already got something next door.”

Finally, Arnott notes that training for the 22 civil service professions also doesn’t fall within his remit. “We can provide advice on career pathways or curriculums, guidance on accreditation and qualifications, links with assessment bodies and access to the training market,” he says, “but the professions must decide for themselves what the framework will be and what qualifications and products they want.”

E-persuasion required

In future, then, much civil service training is likely to be provided by private contractors, training companies, and a small cohort of CSL staff. But the nature of training courses is likely to change just as much as the identity of the providers: with the Cabinet Office hoping that its reforms will save £90m a year, a dramatic shift away from classroom study towards web-based ‘e-learning’ will be required to cut the per-head cost of training. Asked about that £90m ambition, Arnott comments: “I wouldn’t want to be pinned to the wall on that figure. It could be more or less – especially in this year of transition”. But he and Clark believe that expanding e-learning is both desirable and necessary. “If you’re going to get really efficient in delivering learning, you’ve got to have more e-learning,” says Clark.

Some training experts note that e-learning is far less popular than traditional classroom-based courses: a 2010 CSW survey of civil servants found that 30 per cent thought it the least most valuable of seven forms of training, with classroom learning by far the most popular. “I’m not sure how much take-up there will be,” says Zoe Gruhn, director of leadership development at think-tank the Institute for Government. E-learning can work well for technical training, she argues, but it’s less well-adapted to teaching ‘softer’ management skills: “Looking at something like emotional intelligence through e-learning seems a bit bizarre.”

Nonetheless, budget cuts leave CSL with little choice but to make e-learning work. “People don’t like e-learning on its own, but you don’t necessary get to choose the more expensive option if a less expensive one can do the job. It’s not always possible to have one-to-one tuition from a guru,” says Clark. “People are a lot more willing to accept e-learning as part of a blended package which includes on the job support and so on, rather than just being told to sit at a computer.”

Providing the providers

Over the coming months, CSL will be offering elements of its Common Curriculum through short- to medium-term contracts with training providers, concentrating on boosting its e-learning offer. As CSL puts these pieces in place, CSW understands, departments will be expected to end their own interim arrangements and sign up to the CSL courses. But the biggest change won’t come until CSL has chosen a main contractor – a development expected by April 2012. At that point, the contractor will take over much of the work currently carried out by departmental training staff and NSG administrative officers, such as selecting and commissioning training providers, invoicing, and managing training communications. The contractor will both handle the booking systems for the courses delivered directly by CSL, and manage the provision of the rest of the Common Curriculum – probably by delivering some elements itself, while subcontracting more specialist and niche training out to smaller providers.

Clearly, this picture is not a pretty one for the NSG’s 200-plus staff: CSW believes that only a dozen or so people are transferring directly into CSL. But the government is hoping to find a contractor willing to take on the NSG’s Sunningdale facility (and its costly PFI contract) and at least some of the NSG’s employees: “In going to the market, the assets and liabilities of the school will be on offer as part of the procurement for buying that service, in the belief that if a private supplier can find a way of using those people and assets, then that’s a better solution for the taxpayer,” says Clark. “That won’t mean that the organisation continues in anything like its current form, but I personally believe that, once you’ve made the decision to have a much smaller delivery capacity, this is the way to get best value in buying that training and getting value from the assets and liabilities you’ve currently got in-house.”

All to play for

Observers worry that CSL will experience similar problems to the NSG, struggling to place itself at the core of departmental staff development strategies and acquiring an image as a capable provider of middle-management training rather than a flexible, aspirational organisation whose offer is tempting to top officials. “I think CSL will be strong on technical training, middle-management stuff, and it won’t have the clout that it should have,” says Gruhn. “It’s running cheaper training for the masses: the e-learning stuff.”

However, Arnott says CSL’s e-learning will be integrated with other forms of training. “We’ll also be working with more senior civil servants, to ensure that they can pass on their expertise to others,” he says. “While we’re moving away from the classroom, we’re moving to a much more blended approach; that shift will give us a stronger capability than simply sending people on a course.”

Remember, he adds, that “CSL is not at all the same entity as the NSG. The school is a provider, designing and providing in-house a wide range of products. CSL is an enabling organisation to make sure we get the best-quality training for the civil service. We’ll work closely with the external market to make sure we access the best tutors out there in terms of value for money. When it comes to top-level requirements, it’s likely we’ll be working with one or more business schools to make sure we’ve got access to the top leadership training.”

CSL has a tough task ahead of it. And Arnott acknowledges the challenges – not just those around developing good e-learning and support systems, but also the difficulty of “securing market solutions as swiftly as possible that give us value for money and choice, allowing departments and the NSG to remove some of the existing provision.” Perhaps his biggest challenge, though, is in winning the confidence and buy-in that the NSG struggled with; in persuading, as he puts it, “the civil service as a whole to embrace this new approach to the provision of generic training”.

“That’s a challenge of shared commitment and shared investment in the proposition,” Arnott concludes. “And certainly the early signs are positive. We have all the departments signed up to this new approach, and it’s now up to me and my colleagues to make sure we deliver.”

The Common Curriculum

The curriculum comprises six key strands, namely:
The Civil Service Way explains how the civil service operates, including induction courses and training on matters such as working with ministers and constitutional issues;
Leadership of the Civil Service concentrates on joint action to pursue change and transformation;
Management Development covers oversight of people, processes and resources;
Core Skills is a narrower strand, currently covering Lean techniques but set to expand into areas such as commercial skills;
Mandatory Learning includes ‘must haves’ such as health and safety and data protection skills;
Specialist Development offers training in matters that some people in each department will require, such as first aid and freedom of information.

Contact the author

The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

Share this page

Related Articles

Picture of Foreign Secretary meeting officials at British Embassy, Sarajevo

One world, one nation, one vision

23 April 2014

The government’s One Government Overseas initiative is designed to save money and improve...

picture of Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Michael Dugher

Re-forming the reform debate

17 April 2014

Gordon Brown launched a set of Whitehall efficiency initiatives; the coalition ramped things up...

Offender tag

The price tag for failure

4 April 2014

Two major suppliers were charging the Ministry of Justice for the electronic tagging of people...

Cartoon image

Shearing away poor suppliers

4 April 2014

Procurement rules have long been denounced as tangled by British civil servants and ministers...

Add new comment