By matt.foster

21 Jan 2016

Four years on from a major overhaul of Whitehall’s learning and development programme, Civil Service Learning is embarking on another big shake-up. Matt Foster sits down with CSL director Hilary Spencer to discuss what “phase two” will mean for officials

"Civil Service Learning is changing,” says Hilary Spencer from the heart of the Home Office, where her team of officials is currently putting the finishing touches to an ambitious revamp of the civil service-wide training programme she oversees. And her message to those still sceptical about CSL is simple: “We want to support you to do your job in the best way you possibly can, and to help you develop your future.”

Spencer, who took over the role in 2014, says she is “passionate about education and development”. And, having served in key roles at the Department for Education, she seemed a natural fit for a post which, at its heart, is about trying to unlock the potential of civil servants. But she’s also interested in how plans dreamed up in Whitehall can play out on the frontline, so in 2013 she decided to pile a bit more onto her plate by taking up a position as chair of the academy council at a Lambeth free school.

“I really wanted to sort of get back to my roots a bit more in terms of understanding the nuts and bolts of what was really going on in a classroom, and in creating opportunities for kids through the really excellent education that we offer them.

Civil Service Learning chief Hilary Spencer: revamped training scheme will mean "more choice" and "much better" digital service
Civil Service Learning shake-up underway as contract winners unveiled
Civil Service Learning programme a “work in progress”, committee hears
The unexpected benefit of going digital by default

“The school is in Lambeth North, and that’s where I lived when I first came to London, and it’s where my church is. So there’s a personal, geographical connection for me to this particular area. And the ethos that we have of encouraging every single child to achieve their potential and go on to a career with prospects is, for me, a really deeply held personal belief. It is something we should invest time and energy in.”

Spencer – who also juggles the pretty big responsibility of being the mum of a two-year-old – has managed to keep up her involvement with the free school since joining CSL. And her passion for education clearly spills over into her day job, where she says she is motivated by a “real sense of possibility and excitement”.

"All the transactional processes should be much, much better"

Like most of government during the last five years, training and development for civil servants has not been spared from ministers’ drive to rein in spending. 

CSL was introduced in 2012 to try and provide a cost-effective one-stop-shop for departments looking to get hold of courses for their staff, for the first time bringing in a centralised system for buying training to make better use of government’s combined purchasing power. The Cabinet Office estimates that the new system has saved more than £80m on training and development spending since 2012, ending duplication and putting a stop to departments buying courses directly from suppliers, often at wildly varying rates.

But CSL’s stated aims go beyond mere efficiency, with the move also intended to provide much more consistent training for officials by creating a core curriculum for those skills common across Whitehall, and extending the reach of training and development programmes that have traditionally tended to be focused around the most senior grades. According to the latest Civil Service People Survey, staff satisfaction with learning and development is now recovering after suffering a sharp seven-point drop (from 50% satisfaction to 43%) as austerity started to bite between 2009 and 2010. Engagement scores have gradually climbed since, and the 2015 cross-Whitehall average now puts satisfaction with learning and development at 49%.

But CSL has not been without its critics. The arrival of the new system coincided with the scrapping of a dedicated (albeit costly) National School of Government in Ascot, leading MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) to warn about a loss of prestige and a potential over-reliance on decidedly shallower e-learning. Unions meanwhile told the committee that they felt the curriculum was too narrowly focused on generic skills at the expense of specialist training, while, in a 2014 public hearing that seemed to imply some dissatisfaction with CSL at the top of Whitehall, then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude rated the training programme a “six-ish” out of 10. Spencer herself conceded at the same session that online learning remained a love-it-or-hate-it, “Marmitey” component of the scheme.

But – with an overhaul of the contracts for Civil Service Learning now underway, and what Spencer calls “phase two” of the scheme set to launch in early March – the CSL director is adamant that the team has learnt “a lot” from how the scheme has played out over the last few years.

“What we want to do in this next phase is make sure that the learning we have on offer is delivered by people who are best in class and experts in their areas,” she says.

“We want learning which properly reflects the context in which civil servants are operating, so that it has some elements of being tailored and personalised to what civil servants want to learn, and how they want to learn it. We want to make sure that we are properly able to draw on the expertise across the learning and development sector, and within the civil service, to provide a really high-quality offer.”

Under the current CSL deal, departments buy training for staff through a single system overseen by Capita, which sub-contracts courses from a range of smaller suppliers (including Civil Service World’s parent company, Dods). But the Cabinet Office announced at the end of last year that when the £250m contract comes to an end in March, it will be split into four separate lots with different groups of suppliers focused on specific training needs.

The first two lots have been awarded to a consortium led by Korn Ferry Hay Group, which will head up work on senior civil service training, and to a group led by KPMG, who will develop the core curriculum for skills common across Whitehall. According to the Cabinet Office, the remaining two lots of the contract, which have yet to be awarded, will cover specific learning for different departments and professions, as well as a range of public courses. The department says the new approach will help government “to combine value for money with bespoke expertise”.

But what will this shake-up mean for civil servants on the ground? Firstly, Spencer says there has been close collaboration with tech experts at the central Government Digital Service unit to overhaul the front-end of the online service through which CSL is accessed. “We’re redesigning our digital service so hopefully people will find it much easier to find the learning they want and book onto it and attend,” she says. “All those kind of transactional processes should be much, much better.”

Spencer is also keen to stress that officials should now find themselves able to access a wider range of courses which have been “co-created with civil servants”, with the CSL team taking on board feedback about what departments actually need at the design stage, and “not just in the consuming process”. 

There will also be a greater focus on using internal experts from the civil service to deliver some training, rather than relying solely on outside suppliers, she says. “There are things on which we are the experts in the civil service – and we ought to make use of that internal expertise.

“But there will also be greater personalisation, tailoring, in terms of how people want to learn. At the moment people’s default, when they think about learning, is either e-learning or a face-to-face programme, and what we would like is to give people more choice about how they access learning.

“So we will make better use of digital technology, but also make better use of different ways of configuring learning – two-hour blocs, seminars, masterclasses, learning sets, leaders teaching leaders. There’s a whole range of things we’d like to make more use of in the contracts.”

"People are really keen to engage"

Since leaving post, Spencer’s predecessor Jerry Arnott, has spoken of resistance from senior civil servants to CSL’s initial approach. But that’s not a picture Spencer recognises today, she says, adding that she is now getting “a lot of positive feedback and input” from officials who are happy for her team to take the lead on learning and development “across the system”.

“The civil service is a big organisation,” she says. “There will always be people who’ve got different views across it, so there probably isn’t one homogenous view of a number of things. But my experience in this role has been that people are really keen to engage in their learning and development. We’ve had lots of support from senior people wanting to get involved with what we’re doing. 

“There are some really good examples of things like the Policy Profession where they run a series of leaders-teaching-leaders events which are run entirely by civil servants who commit their time to do this and support the development of their colleagues. I think there are lots of positive examples of senior civil servants taking this agenda really seriously and committing to it.”

The CSL director points to a new cross-government Learning Board, made up of officials at permanent secretary, director general and director-level – who are all now involved in helping to shape the service’s training and development programme. This, she says, shows that leaders are “really keen to engage” with the subject, and see training as “business-critical for delivering what they need to over the years ahead”.

“I think the nub of this is providing learning and development that helps people be better at their jobs. I think, ultimately, if what we offer is of a higher quality and helps people to be more effective, it is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but essential for doing your job really well.

“I think that’s the key thing: making learning so good that people want to do it because they see the positive effect it has on their performance. And we do also need to balance that with making sure we invest for the future, in people’s future skills and people’s future capability development. We need to get that balance right between helping people be really effective in their current jobs and building them up to have greater capability to take on a wider range of challenges in the future.”

"A common sense of a leadership culture"

It’s not just the core Civil Service Learning programme that’s getting a revamp. Spencer also reveals that CSL, Hay Group and KPMG are “intimately” involved in the design of a new leadership academy, which will help to train the next generation of civil service leaders and support those already working in top roles. 

Such a move has already been urged by MPs on PASC (now called PACAC), with the committee’s report saying senior staff were still “not getting access to the sort of training they require” to confront the “unique challenges faced by public service leaders”. Civil service chief executive John Manzoni, who has made the new academy a personal priority, has said it is likely to occupy a “dedicated” site – although Spencer explains that CSL is “still working up options” before its launch later this year.

One sharp-eyed (or perhaps rather weary) CSW reader has pointed out that the idea of a dedicated training site seems a little like the scrapped National School of Government – a physical site focused on civil service learning. So is there now a recognition that residential learning should be part of the mix?

Spencer deftly avoids being drawn on the NSG comparison – and all indications are that the new academy will be much more limited in focus than the old School. But Spencer says her team has sought to take cues from corporate universities and public schools of administration overseas to find out what works best.

“There are lots of different models for how you can set up something like a leadership academy. But some common features seem to be that it helps establish leadership as a real priority; it provides a space, whether virtual or physical, for leaders to get together to build more of a common sense of a leadership cadre and a leadership culture; and also that it provides support and challenge for leaders who are facing a range of challenges across their business.

“So those seem the three quite high-level principles in terms of what other organisations are doing. We’re working really closely with John [Manzoni] and with our new suppliers to scope some of those options in more detail. Our plan over the next few months is to consult more widely across government, draw on some of the expertise of our non-execs, and those in industry, to firm up those proposals in much more detail.”

"We need to reflect the starting cultures in different departments"

Spencer’s commitment to making CSL more relevant to the needs of officials, and to bolstering the support available to fledgling civil service leaders, is obvious. But she is not complacent about some of the challenges government still faces in identifying the skills gaps that remain. Manzoni has spoken of his own frustrations at the patchy quality of civil service-wide human resources data, and Spencer acknowledges that improving the systems that allow leaders to keep a proper track of their organisational needs remains a “work in progress”.

“It’s an ongoing task, as I think it is for quite a lot of other organisations,” she says. “We’ve taken some big steps in Civil Service Learning to improve our data. We have set up a data and analysis team which is making much more use of the data we have got, trying to mine that, trying to understand what the patterns are, find out what relationship is between the needs of departments and the take-up of different kinds of learning.”

And, while generic skills will remain a key part of what Civil Service Learning offers, Spencer is also clear about that a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not be enough.

“You might have some core management principles and management behaviours that we want to establish across the civil service,” she says. “But the way that you would enact those in different departments needs to reflect the starting cultures in different departments in order to be effective.”

With this in mind, Spencer says CSL itself has undergone an internal reorganisation to try and ensure it is “much more focused along customer lines”, with a dedicated team looking after departments and professions and providing “much more of that bespoke service”.
“People can tell us what they want and need and we’re responsive to feedback – we’ve got account managers for different departments and different professions, and we’ve hired in some new people to take that forward.”

As CSL prepares to move into its next phase, Spencer’s natural optimism shines through. “I honestly think we [in the civil service] do some of the most important work there is. And I think we’ve got some fantastic people who pour their heart and soul into what we’re doing. A big thing which motivates me is being surrounded by some of those people in my working life.”

And, alongside Spencer’s enthusiasm, there’s clearly a hard-headed recognition of just how important good training and development will be as Whitehall continues to grapple with ministers’ commitment to trying to get more for less.

“It’s an oldie but a goodie: people are our greatest asset. I think in terms of us delivering really high quality public services, both now and in the future, we really, really need to make sure that we support, develop, maintain, and motivate our people to perform in the best way they possibly can.”


Read the most recent articles written by matt.foster - Top civil servants Robert Devereux & Chris Wormald stick up for spads

Share this page