Five ways to build a more capable policy profession

Written by Tina Seth and Tony Shaw on 30 October 2017 in Feature

Tina Seth and Tony Shaw argue that we must invest in our policymakers, and offer lessons emerging from a cross-government forum on policy skills

The UK leads the world when it comes to policymaking, according to the recent International Civil Service Effectiveness Index 2017 published by the Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government. But when it comes to having the core skills that good governments need, we aren’t even in the top five. This should give us pause for thought: at a time when stresses on policy officials are unprecedented, we must ensure we do not neglect the need for skills development. 

Some argue that the pace of government is so fast, and demand for delivery so acute, that there is no time for learning and development. But, in the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. A civil service director once responded to this by saying that in the meantime, the tree will grow branches and leaves, becoming an unwieldy out-of-control mess. What he really meant was that he was not prepared to prioritise learning and development.

While some are concerned about lack of time, others raise the challenge of a lack of funding and resources for training. At the Dods Training policy forum – a regular meeting that brings together policy, learning and development (L&D) and, HR leads from across government – we have heard about some alarming budget cuts, but is that necessarily a bad thing? In service delivery spending reductions can help to drive innovation as departments look for digital alternatives, new ways to facilitate behaviour change and seek to connect with other departments to deliver high quality services within these budget constraints. 

The same parallels can be drawn with learning and development. What is the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, targeted) approach, when we don’t have the budget or time for traditional classroom training? We need to rethink how to maximise the value of the face-to-face approach.


We’ve seen some clear trends from our policy forum members. Here are some top tips based on our own experience, and reflections from that group.

1. Don’t look for ‘one size fits all’

This is about conducting learning needs analysis and ruthless prioritisation. What are the critical business objectives? What are the skills needed to meet them? Our engagement with policy L&D leads has revealed a labyrinthine commissioning process, with decentralised business area budgets and a central L&D “pot”.

There are downsides to this approach – it is harder to make economies of scale, for example – but it does mean business areas can ask for specific training tailored to their work outcomes and are therefore more likely to hit the mark in terms of performance improvement. It also means that training content will be less generic because it won’t have been diluted to meet everyone’s needs.  

2. Make wise use of internal expertise

Many departments are now running internal policy induction weeks, drawing speakers from their departments. We promoted this approach when we were heads of L&D within government – it seems a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t we get the senior experts in the organisation to train, coach and mentor others? But there are drawbacks. It is difficult to sustain the model when senior civil service time is at a premium. Also, how many of these senior people have a background in training, with the skills in facilitation required to make sure people are learning, and learning in a dynamic way?

Internally sourced events can be insular, and seem to contradict the policy profession’s drive to make its members more outward focused. If we need more outward focused policymakers, we need more external input into their inductions. L&D heads need to strike a balance between making the most of internal experts, and working with outside partners to bring new expertise and improve the quality of these learning events.

3. Join the dots

Often, training fails to hit the mark and lead to performance improvement because the underlying causes of poor performance are not addressed. We treat the symptoms – for example sending someone whose written work is poor on a technical writing skills course – without addressing the real causes. In the case of poor writing, it might be that senior approvers are not explaining their stylistic preferences, or that people are writing unfathomable submissions because they don’t actually understand the policy issues.

The SMART approach, which some departments are adopting, is to deliver learning that addresses culture, behaviours and technical skills, combining management and personal effectiveness with the policy environment.

4. Move beyond ‘content’

We are asked often by policy forum members for ideas of new and dynamic content to offer their teams. You can learn from many things: TED talks, for example, or journal articles. But will it have an impact if we just regurgitate this at training events?  

A more dynamic approach that combines theory with real time application has a much more powerful and lasting impact.

In the world of open policymaking, why not bring policy officials together with their key stakeholders and consider a policy question? Is it the right question? What are the causes? What are the risks according to stakeholders? Considering issues in a broad forum would be a more challenging and robust learning process.

5. Don’t neglect resilience

We are hearing from delegates on courses and through the policy forum group that policy professionals are finding it difficult to cope with the demands of Brexit. This isn’t just those closely involved, but also those who are having to rethink how to deliver their policies or outcomes as a result of being lower down the pecking order in the legislative timetable. Add to that mix the array of 2020 transformation programmes and you have a potentially lethal cocktail of derailments, U-turns and complexity on a scale never seen before.

This will require a great deal of personal mettle and a little of the spirit shown in Kipling’s poem “If” – policy officials must keep their heads while all about them are losing theirs. Departments are starting to see the need to invest in building resilience and for senior leaders to admit their own weaknesses and stresses as a part of that drive. Keeping our policymakers feeling mentally fit to take this challenging programme of work forward should be an integral part of policy training. 

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Tina Seth and Tony Shaw
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Tina Seth and Tony Shaw are trainers at Dods Training, previously known as Westminster Explained. On 24 November, Dods Training will host a webinar on preparing for Brexit in partnership with CSW’s sister publication Training Journal. See for more details.

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