The Cabinet Office’s long-term failure to get to grips with specialist skills gaps within the civil service has fuelled “ineffectiveness and inefficiency” across Whitehall and left projects and programmes “plagued by the same issues year after year”, MPs have said.
A damning report from members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network programme and the Department for Transport's High Speed Two and Crossrail projects are all examples of affected projects.
As well as management of large projects, the science, commercial and digital fields are known to have major skills gaps.
MPs said a significant contributory factor to remedying the problem is a lack of adequate departmental data to support government functions to develop comprehensive workforce plans. They said the Cabinet Office had acknowledged it “does not have all the data it needs” to assess what skills the civil service currently has and where suitably qualified people should be deployed to maximise resources.
Committee members said that rather than developing and retaining in-house skills and expertise, government is often “too quick to spend money on consultants to undertake work that could actually be better done by existing civil servants”.
The report said the government’s 2019-20 spending on consultants was £980m and is expected to be higher in 2020-21 because of advice procured in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as told to the committee last month.
PAC said government had consistently failed to address the lack of specialist skills, with the result that waste, delays and budgetary overruns had continued – undermining repeated assurances by the government that it is committed to tackling the issue.
MPs said departments each have their own systems for collecting data on staff, and as a result departmental workforce data quality and content varies.
They noted that some functions had undertaken their own data collection exercises with departments to get around the problem of workforce data quality, while dealing with dynamic challenges such as Brexit and Covid-19 has forced the Cabinet Office to improve its workforce planning and improve the quality of data available to functions.
But MPs said the exercise would have resulted in even greater improvements if the Cabinet Office had access to more granular workforce data.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said that all too often, the government’s preferred response to failing projects has been to pay out “billions of pounds” to consultants rather than investing in developing in-house skills, expertise and knowledge in public services.
“This short-term approach does nothing to improve the civil service’s capacity and capability for the future. Instead it is a constant drain on public funds with little evidence of benefits,” she said.
“We’ve got a long economic slog ahead of us in the wake of Covid-19, and the government is pinning a lot of hope on massive infrastructure and environmental projects – it cannot continue this pattern of huge waste and loss, or we will never get out of the hole we are in.”
The PAC report calls on the Cabinet Office to set out how it will work with departments and functions to make sure workforce data is collected at the right level, to better address skills gaps and shortages.
It said that filling gaps should be prioritised as part of the civil service modernisation and reform process – with the current cost of using consultants to fill skills gaps considered as part of the work.
“The Cabinet Office should outline in its Treasury minute response how it plans to reduce reliance on external consultants and mitigate these costs in future,” the report said.
The PAC report said “only a few” of the 14 functions that were introduced seven years ago had been able to demonstrate their benefits. It said functions should look to see what they could learn from the success of the digital function in reducing dependence on contractors – said to have dropped from 50% of headcount to 20% of headcount in recent years.
It urged Cabinet Office, the Treasury and civil service functions to agree a consistent methodology for measuring costs, benefits and impacts, including non-financial impacts by July next year and report to the committee on their performance.
In the nearer term, the report also calls on the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to outline how and when they will review pay-exception case processes across the functions to address current pay disparities and avoid creating an internal market for specialists.
Additionally, MPs noted that the civil service still had “a long way to go” to ensure it recruits, retains and promotes those from different backgrounds.
They gave the Cabinet Office three months to set out detailed information on the retention and progression of staff from different backgrounds, including a breakdown by age, sex, ethnicity and disability.
MPs said the department also needs to set out its plans for further reform to promote diversity, including detailed and specific actions planned to address identified areas of under-representation.
CSW has contacted the Cabinet Office for a comment.