Alex Thomas: Skills and spills in the civil service

The government is keen to boost the skills of civil servants and, even in the midst of the Greensill scandal, Whitehall needs to think about both internal training and bringing in external expertise. Here’s some ideas for reform
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By Alex Thomas

19 Apr 2021

When the prime minister arrived in Downing Street his team put civil service reform near the top of their priority list. The PM’s former adviser Dominic Cummings called for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to join the civil service to ensure “genuine cognitive diversity”. Though at the same time he issued a contradictory warning that he would “bin you within weeks if you don’t fit”.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove offered a more conventional critique of the lack of “basic skills required to serve government, and our citizens, well” in his 2020 Ditchley speech. He pointed to gaps in mathematics and statistics, procurement, science and engineering, and expertise in specific policy areas.

The government’s view has been that enhancing the skills of the civil service is essential to deliver its other objectives. That is right. Identifying, attracting, developing and deploying the right civil service skills will be critical to the success of this government and its successors.

Our new Institute for Government report on finding the right skills for the civil service looks at the progress made and what needs to happen next.

In the heat of the Greensill scandal it is easy to lose sight of the benefits that bringing in new skills can have, and of the progress the civil service has made. Reforms over the last decade have helped to create and develop the cross-government functions and professions that improve how government builds and deploys its specialist skills.

The first of our recommendations is that the civil service should have a strategy to set out the skills it wants to develop. That includes more data, digital, finance, project- and portfolio management capability. Without a clear cross-civil service strategic plan, priorities will be ad hoc and skills development will remain patchy across departments (and functions).

The civil service also needs to be able to create, deploy and manage effective multi-disciplinary teams that more formally bring together the expertise and skills of different professionals. These groups can be made up of people with different and complementary skill sets from inside and outside the civil service. In particular the nature of the projects future governments will want and need to do – from net zero to infrastructure improvement – means that the civil service will need more expert project and portfolio managers to make up these teams.

Next, there is a common critique that the civil service needs more of one or another particular professional skills. That might be digital specialists, project managers or data analysts. That is fair enough, but the civil service already has thousands of experts in its ranks. More than half of civil servants are operational delivery specialists working with citizens on the frontline of public services. The UK government is a large employer of scientists and engineers, data, digital and technology experts, commercial professionals, analysts and project managers.

But the data collected on who has these skills, and to what level of competence, is inadequate. Consistent information is lacking and different data collection systems across departments mean that civil service leaders do not know enough about their workforce, the skills they have available, or how best to deploy them. Sorting that out should be a top priority. The civil service needs to commit to collecting better data on skills, and its senior leadership should set up a programme of systematic data collection. This is not data for data’s sake – it is vital to effectively managing any workforce.

The next priority is to make managers accountable for developing the skills of their teams. Training is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ and managers need to have their feet held to the fire for bringing on the people they oversee. They should be held directly accountable for their team’s development, as well as their own, and set rigorous development goals with the people they manage each year and report back on how far they have been met.

Opportunities for development are too rare for those civil servants who are not new starters or considered top talent. Self-development should be a fundamental part of every civil servant’s job, to improve performance in their current role and to develop skills needed to progress. Funding should not be a barrier to taking up relevant opportunities to learn.

Building on ongoing efforts by the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, a core group of training courses should be developed for skills that are important across the civil service, particularly for improving writing, numeracy, collaborating within and across teams and core digital skills. Civil servants who work with ministers and parliament need to learn from the experience of others, and policy officials need an understanding of economic and financial models.

The quality of training also needs more rigorous assessment and accreditation. The civil service should invest in evaluation and avoid long contracting cycles that are hard to adapt and improve.

It is a brave think tank that, during a lobbying furore, issues a call for continuing to build private sector experience and expertise in the civil service. But the civil service still needs those skills. Stronger ethical oversight of transfers between the private and public sector is required, but that should not stop the circulation of skilled people.

That should sit alongside efforts to bring senior police, health, central and local government public servants together to develop their leadership, building on the model of the National Leadership Centre. The wider public sector has a lot to offer the civil service but tapping into this experience and insight can be hard.

Improving skills in the civil service is not something that will ever be finished. Like almost all organisations the government workforce needs to refresh and redefine the skills it needs over time. That is the challenge for the current civil service leadership, no less than that when Lord Fulton issued his 1968 call for the civil service to “think out what new skills and kinds of men are needed, and how these men can be found, trained and deployed”. His language is outdated, but his insight remains true today.

Alex Thomas is a programme director at the Institute for Government, leading the institute’s work on policy making and the civil service

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