By Suzannah.Brecknell

28 Mar 2013

In 2010, a CSW survey revealed civil servants’ feelings about their training. Three years on, post budget cuts and Civil Service Learning, we’ve asked them again – with quite different results. Suzannah Brecknell reports.

Training, according to head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake, is “a critical part of the civil service reform plan; we have committed to at least five days’ training for each member of staff. We see investment in the development of staff as important both to the government in the delivery of its priorities, and also to the individual”. In the light of this, senior leaders may be concerned that a CSW survey reveals widespread dissatisfaction with learning and development in the civil service, and a perception of long-term decline.

Kerslake’s sentiments about the importance of training are echoed by the staff he leads: 96 per cent of respondents to the CSW survey, which aimed to discover civil servants’ views on training in their organisations, said that training is ‘important’ for job satisfaction – of those, more than two thirds said it is ‘very important’. At a time when staff engagement and morale are threatened by continual reform, ministerial gripes, and pressures on pay and conditions, the opportunity to learn and develop becomes even more important.

“In this environment, people want to know how to perform,” says John McGurk, a learning and development expert at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD). “And they want learning that helps them to perform; to get promoted; to keep their job; to move into another job that may be available if their own job is restructured. They want the flexibility that learning affords them.”

The CSW survey, carried out last month (see box below), was largely a repetition of a survey carried out in 2010, shortly before the coalition government came to power, in which we found that civil servants were broadly positive about their training: 47 per cent thought it had improved in the preceding three years, and just 26 per cent said it had deteriorated. In 2013 that picture has been pretty much reversed. Of the respondents who expressed an opinion, just 31 per cent feel that training has improved in their organisation over the last three years, and 52 per cent believe that it has deteriorated (See Figure 1).


Closer examination of the findings by respondents’ grade reveals a pattern: although the total number of negative answers was similar across most grades, the more junior the individual, the more likely they were to pick the most negative answer – saying that training has ‘greatly deteriorated’. Only the Fast Stream and senior civil servants bucked this trend: a relatively small number of fast streamers picked this option (though they were still less happy than the 2010 cohort); while SCS, who were pretty happy in 2010, believe that things have gone badly downhill. (But note that these were relatively small sample groups – of 34 and 30 respectively.)

Those three years have seen major organisational changes in training across the civil service. In 2010, departments had full control of their own training budgets, and the central National School for Government provided in-house training. Today, following a period of austerity and a major reorganisation, the picture is very different. Departments still have their own training budgets – though many are smaller now – but must procure most of their training through a new central organisation, Civil Service Learning (CSL), which buys in training through a framework operated by private firm Capita.

Robin Ryde, a former chief executive of the National School for Government, believes that the figures should be a “wake up call for Civil Service Learning, and also for Bob Kerslake and others who have an interest and responsibility in making sure the civil service is capable of dealing with the challenges we face”. The wider context of public service reform and fiscal austerity is so demanding, he continues, that “we should be seeing that people are saying the quality of learning and development is increasing, because the challenges are increasing. Actually, we’re seeing the opposite, and that worries me a great deal”.

Kerslake, however, responds by bringing out his own statistics, based on the findings of the 2012 Civil Service People Survey. “It’s worth setting those scores against some of the work we do ourselves,” he tells CSW, pointing out that 58 per cent of People Survey respondents agreed with the statement: “I am able to access the right learning and development opportunities when I need to” – a four point increase on 2011.

This does paint a happier picture than CSW’s findings, in which 51 per cent of respondents said they have struggled to access learning and development in the last year (see Figure 3) – but Kerslake has chosen to focus on the most positive part of the Learning & Development theme within the People Survey. The overall engagement score within that theme was 44 per cent: a one point increase on 2011, but still six points down on 2009 when the survey began. And although Kerslake highlights the year’s four point increase in those who say they can access required learning & development, the 58 per cent figure is also worse than 2009, when 63 per cent replied positively. So the People Survey shows an increase in satisfaction compared to 2011; but it, like the CSW survey, shows an overall drop in satisfaction over the last three years.


Training in the last year
On a more positive note, CSW’s research – like the People Survey – suggests that the decline in training quality and availability has largely stabilised since the launch of CSL. When asked: “What is your impression of the new CSL system, and how does it compare to the previous system of accessing training?”, respondents were split roughly equally (see Figure 2). Alongside 15 per cent who expressed no opinion, just over a third (34 per cent) thought the new system worse than its predecessor; 29 per cent said it’s better; and 22 per cent thought its quality unchanged. McGurk says he is somewhat encouraged by the fact that there is “almost neutrality” between the positive and negative groups; this, he says, is better than you’d expect, given the level of dissatisfaction across the service generally and the concerns he picked up from learning and development leaders prior to the introduction of CSL.

One significant variation from this generally neutral picture is among senior civil servants. In this group, just 20 per cent of respondents think the new system is better, while 43 per cent think it worse – including 33 per cent who think it ‘much worse’. Our SCS sample group is small – but our 238 grade 6 and 7 respondents, while less antagonistic to the new system than SCS, were also noticeably more hostile to it than lower grades.

That 15 per cent of respondents said they don’t know whether the new system is better or worse probably reflects the fact that not everyone has accessed training through the new system yet. About a quarter of civil servants are not yet registered on the online portal through which they can search for and/or request training from CSL, and Kerslake says increasing the number of those registered is a priority among future improvements.

The CSW survey highlights ease of access to training as another area which seems to have worsened since 2010. The proportion of people who said they’ve struggled to access training in the last year rose from 33 per cent in 2010 to 51 per cent in 2013 (See Figure 3). This is one area where it seems that the civil service is ‘all in it together’: whereas in 2010 the SCS were less likely to find it hard to access training (just 26 per cent said they did so), they are now finding it just as hard as everyone else. When asked in 2013 what types of training they have undertaken in the last year, 20 per cent of SCS and 17 per cent of all respondents said they have not undertaken any training at all.


As McGurk points out, these questions give only a headline picture: our data doesn’t explain why people struggled to access training. Kerslake suggests that work pressures and problems with introducing the new system help explain why people might struggle to access training: the bare figures can’t be taken wholly as a verdict on the effectiveness of the CSL system.

As well as the general problems of adapting to a new way of booking training, some departments did experience specific difficulties with the new online portal: at the Ministry of Defence, for example, security settings meant many staff could not register at all (see case study). These system-based problems are reflected in the answers given when CSW asked survey respondents to indicate which specific areas of the new training system were better or worse than its predecessor: 27 per cent of respondents named ‘searching, booking and administrative systems’ as an area which had deteriorated – the third most popular answer – while nearly one in five (19 per cent) of respondents felt that line manager spending and approval systems had got worse.

Kerslake suggests that some of the negative responses may be rooted in the inevitable difficulties of getting any new system to work. It’s something he recognises from his own experience of overseeing CSL’s introduction into the communities department, where he is permanent secretary: “In the first year [of CSL], we had some people saying: ‘We’re not sure how this process works’,” he recalls. “I do think quite a lot has been done to streamline it, and the very fact that many people have now taken up training opportunities does tell you that people are able to”.

Secondly, he suggests that some people overestimated the pressure on budgets and were unnecessarily strict about approving or requesting training. “In the end, I think there isn’t an issue about budgets,” he says. “Yes, there have been reduced budgets, but actually the costs of provision have come down. In practice, some of this might be about people applying the controls quite tightly when in fact the budgets were there to train people.”


Topics, formats, quality
By cross-referencing our data on people’s overall opinions of the CSL system with that on their views of particular aspects of its work, CSW was able to pull out figures showing exactly what has pleased CSL’s fans and irked its opponents (see Figure 4). What’s striking here is how the two sets of responses provide a mirror image of one another – so that, for example, 45 per cent of those who think the system has improved say that it now offers more training in the subjects that they require, while 49 per cent of those who think it’s worse say it’s less able to support the subjects they want. So people’s views of the overall system may well reflect their own personal experiences – and the topics on which they express the strongest opinions, in both directions, are the quality, subjects and formats of training, plus searching, booking and administrative systems. It looks like these are the areas where people’s experiences have diverged the most – and also, perhaps, those on which CSL as a whole has largely been judged.

In terms of the topics of courses on offer, when CSL launched in April 2012 just 137 courses were available – plus hundreds of “learning resources”, according to the Cabinet Office – with more courses added over the next three months. So for those three months people were unable to access the full range of training, which is bound to have created a negative impression. Perceptions may also have been influenced by a new central approval system governing departments’ ability to arrange training for specific business needs: this has lengthened the timescale for the commissioning of specialist training. These administrative delays and complexities may help explain why SCS and grades 6 and 7 – who are likely to be involved in sourcing or commissioning training for their staff – have a more negative view of CSL than more junior officials.

It is also worth noting that even among those respondents who see CSL as an improvement, a majority think that two aspects of training provision have deteriorated: ‘line manager and spending approval systems’, and ‘departmental and agency budgets to fund training courses’. Kerslake may be right to say that perceptions of a lack of money for training are exaggerated, but they are nonetheless widespread.

Training formats
When asked about formats of learning – for example, lunchtime learning sessions or ‘blended learning’ – respondents rated classroom learning as the most valuable form of training. In fact, its popularity has grown in the last three years, with 52 per cent rating it as the most valuable compared to 37 per cent in 2010.

E-learning remains overwhelmingly unpopular: just six per cent now think it is the most valuable form of training, while 29 per cent said it is the least valuable (in 2010, those figures were five per cent and 30 per cent). This may come as a blow to the team at CSL: shifting more training to the e-learning format is a key plank of CSL’s plans, but it’s obvious that perceptions of the format haven’t improved.

McGurk responds to the continuing unpopularity of e-learning by arguing that change takes time. People still perceive learning as being something “where you’re taken away from your day job in a specific episode,” he says. “I think that’s changing, but it won’t change that quickly.” People are increasingly experimenting with new forms of learning, he says, but “it doesn’t really surprise me that people are clinging to the comfort blanket, if you like, of classroom training”.

Ryde says that since e-learning will be an important part of training now and in the future, the survey results should prompt “a bit of deep reflection on the part of CSL and bodies that are delivering [training]. If the feedback is that e-learning is not delivering training in a way that meets people’s needs [they must consider] why it is not meeting people’s needs. Is it being applied to the right [areas]?”

Quality of learning

All in all, our survey findings on the changing quality of civil service training do not make happy reading. The proportion of those believing that L&D has declined in quality has doubled to 52 per cent over the last three years; and when asked their views of the last year’s changes, more people perceive decline than development. Invited to pick out those aspects of training which have improved and those which have deteriorated over the last year, 13 per cent of respondents named the quality of courses as improving; 23 per cent said it has deteriorated. And while this leaves two thirds of all respondents who didn’t express a view on the topic, it’s noticeable that even among those who think CSL has ushered in an improvement in training, nearly one in ten say that course quality has declined (See Figure 4).

Nonetheless, Sir Bob is positive about the progress that CSL has made in its first year, saying it has been “a big success story: it’s an example of a completely reorganised service that has delivered lower-cost training but is still achieving high levels of positive feedback in terms of the quality of what it provides”.

Kerslake rests his analysis on CSL’s own metrics, which subject each course provided to four measurements: these assess whether the course meets published objectives; whether learning has taken place; whether there is a subsequent change in an individual’s skills, knowledge or behaviour; and whether there is a positive impact on the business as a result of training.

The first of these is measured through feedback forms completed by trainees, with the target that 95 per cent agree that the “course met the published objectives/outcomes”. So far, satisfaction rates have been high, at 96 per cent – though as Ryde points out, “very few people who run training programmes specify objectives that couldn’t be matched to what went on in the programme, so in most cases you get positive results if you ask a question like that.”

On the second metric, in more than 90 per cent of courses “learning has taken place”, hitting CSL’s target. On the third, CSL finds that individuals’ skills and behaviours have improved in 62-77 per cent of cases – depending on the learning format – against a target of 85 per cent. Finally, CSL says that in 67 per cent of cases, line managers can explain how an individual’s training has boosted progress against business objectives; it has a target of 95 per cent on this metric, and will be focusing on improving performance here.

Priorities for improvement
Based on these numbers, and those from the People Survey, “the story looks more positive” than the CSW survey suggests, says Kerslake, though “that’s not to say that there aren’t areas where we should do better.”

As well as improving access and registration on the new system, Kerslake says he wants to focus on particular areas that will be highlighted in the capabilities plan, due to published in the near future. This plan, promised in the Civil Service Reform Plan last year and originally due for publication in Autumn 2012, “will be the first time the civil service has had a go at identifying what the priorities are for new development and training,” he says. Kerslake indicates there will be a particular focus on “digital, procurement, purchasing and commercial [skills] as areas that we want to develop, but also on our ability to lead and manage change”.

The focus on leading and managing change was emphasised in the recently published civil service competency framework. Yet when CSW asked survey respondents to name the particular type of training they struggled to access in the last year (see Figure 5), ‘management and leadership’ was the second most popular answer. This may explain why the number of people who said they’ve undertaken this type of training in the last year fell from 33 per cent in 2010 to 22 per cent in 2013.

What next?
If Kerslake and the team at CSL see these survey results as a wake up call – as Ryde suggests they should – the action they take will be defined by their understanding of the underlying problem. For Ryde, the key concern is the need to have a strong strategic steer on where civil service training should be heading in the next few years. The lack of clear skills strategy for the civil service is “quite a significant gap”, he admits, and as long as there is no “very clear, big push about development and capability creation”, people will remain confused and concerned about training overall.

As Sir Bob says, a capability strategy is imminent – but McGurk implies that even with a clear steer on the future of training, there will still be a need to disentangle perceptions of training from overall engagement and employee relations concerns. This will require a joint effort from managers and unions, he says, to “stand for the brand of learning and development in difficult times”, and send a message that “we’ve got real challenges in this organisation, but the one thing that we can do is learn, change and adapt”.?


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