Educating a civil service that is fit for purpose – Q&A with public administration researcher Ian C. Elliott

Ian C. Elliot, co-author of new study on professional development of civil service and wider public sector, talks to CSW about what the next government should be focusing and the dangers of civil service politicisation
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By Tevye Markson

25 Jun 2024

A new study has warned that UK is falling behind when it comes to developing generalist skills among officials.

The research calls for governments – national, regional and local – to work more closely with academics to design public administration programmes that are more relevant to civil servants and other officials across the public sector.

CSW spoke to its head researcher Ian C. Elliott to find about more about the barriers to government and academia in the UK working together, what the next government should be focusing on and the relationship between professional development and the politicisation of the civil service.

What is your main takeaway from the study?

Across the world governments are investing in the skills and knowledge of public servants. That isn't something that has happened systematically within the UK over time. There are moves to do more of that, particularly with the establishment of the Leadership College for Government, but the risk is that the skills and knowledge underpinning that won't be relevant to the public sector and won't map across to international standards.

What reforms would you like to see from the next government?

The expectation is that there will be a Labour government, but I think whichever government comes in, there will be significant changes required. We can see just how constrained the public finances are. We can see the challenges that are posed by demographic change. So public service reform, change and innovation are going to be common themes that anybgovernment coming in is going to face. And  in order to actually deliver any change, you need to have skilled and trained people to underpin that. Those skills need to be context specific and practically relevant. To simply apply generic business management, processes and practices is just naive because they're not applicable to a public service context. Some of the manifestos are suggesting very significant cuts, for example, in the number of people employed in the public sector. If you're going to do that, you really need to be investing in the skills and the knowledge of the people who are still going to be there to actually deliver these changes. Also, bearing in mind that we are working in a systems context, it’s important that different public services understand how to work in partnership, which again is something that is quite specific to working in a public service context. And we're just not seeing that level of thinking at the moment.

The research calls for officials and academics to come together and co-design more relevant training for public servants. What are some of the things holding this back?

Academia doesn't have a completely untarnished record on this. There have been challenges around the speed at which academia works and, at times, the practical focus and the applied nature isn’t always there from academia. One of the interesting things that we found in our research was that the practitioners who were looking for training and development found that there was a lack of equality and diversity in both the people who were delivering education from universities but also in the sorts of materials that they were using. There was a very, very high concentration of people like me, basically white middle-class men, and a lot of the materials that were being used were from Britain or the USA. That was something that we didn't expect to find in our research, but that came across quite strongly with the practitioner focus group, that they really felt that universities need to do much more to represent the sorts of communities that public services are working with. And I think that is a fair criticism.

There is lots of work going on across universities currently to decolonise the curriculum, develop more equality and diversity materials and certainly within the public administration curriculum to embed equality and diversity within everything that we do. Equality and diversity will be a core aspect of the subject benchmark statement for public administration and public policy that the Quality Assurance Agency is developing. So I think the future looks promising in terms of academic and civil service partnership working.

But it's really important that where practitioners are engaging with the universities, they're engaging with the right part of the university and that isn't always entirely obvious. So making sure that you're engaging with academics who come from a public policy or public administration background who understand the context of public service, rather than academics who are maybe coming at this with an entirely generalist kind of perspective.

What other challenges are there to improving the professional development of civil servants and other public sector officials?

Another key challenge is public perception. Sometimes I think the public feel that investing in skills and development of civil servants or other public service workers is a luxury that we can't afford. But what I would argue very strongly is that in the context that we're in, we really need to have well-trained, well-motivated staff to deliver the changes that are required. And so this isn't a cost as much as it is an investment. But that's a leadership challenge. We need to have leaders who are willing to explain to Parliament and to the wider public the need for development of skills in leadership and management across the public sector. No-one would argue that this is a bad thing with GPs or allied health professionals or dentists. We expect these professions to be well skilled, to be well educated. The same thing should apply to people who are writing laws on our behalf, who are developing public policy and who are delivering those public policies as well. It is essential that we have a skilled workforce for the future.

The study warns of the combination of a skill deficit and the increasing politicisation of the civil service. What are the dangers?

Traditionally the civil service is impartial and that’s a core principle of the UK civil service. But research suggests that the civil service in the UK is becoming increasingly politicised and finding it more difficult to challenge ministers. One way to help to mitigate that is by having a more skilled and educated workforce that understands the context within which they're working, has a greater appreciation of international standards and good practice, and is able to challenge that politicisation more effectively. So that’s why we're arguing for long-term sustained investment in their leadership and management skills. We haven’t had this in the civil service or indeed other parts of the public sector because of fluctuations in political ideology and the financial environment which feeds into this challenge but having a highly skilled public service workforce bringing evidence to the centre of decision making is needed now more than ever before.

Dr Ian C. Elliott is a senior lecturer in public administration at the Centre for Public Policy, University of Glasgow, and co-author of Educating a civil service that is fit for purpose: perceptions from UK stakeholders. The original research can be accessed here


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