Editorial: To build stronger skills, reformers will have to upset people

Whitehall needs to build stronger specialist skills; CSW editor Matt Ross argues, it will only succeed if it’s willing to challenge the status quo

Lego cars in Trafalgar Square Photo PA

By Matt Ross

23 Oct 2014

It’s uplifting to read, in our interviews with outgoing Met Office boss John Hirst, DECC perm sec Stephen Lovegrove and chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport  about people who’ve leapt across sectors and professions to enjoy spontaneous, evolving, diverse working lives – and risen right to the top. But most of us have to rely on more established career paths. And in the civil service, one career path has always been pre-eminent: the policy profession.

Even after several years of noise about getting delivery experts and specialist professionals into leadership jobs, most of today’s top-ranking civil servants learned their trade in private offices and policy units – often with a tour of managerial roles in some of the specialist functions. The continuing dominance of this route as the most reliable path to power not only robs the other professions of status and influence, but actively interferes with the development of powerful and skilled technical functions. For placing high-flyers in a series of specialist managerial roles, in the ‘generalist’ tradition, puts highly-skilled jobs in the hands of bright amateurs, regularly wipes clean institutional memories, and fosters churn that wrecks continuity in project management – causing problems condemned by Hirst and government digital chief Mike Bracken.

To the business world, the system looks bizarre. In the private sector, experience, specialist skills and a track record of successfully completing projects provide the best route to senior management. Few specialists have any illusions that they’ll end up as chief exec – but the best leaders, despite their own backgrounds in sales or finance, do lean heavily on their technical professionals in making key decisions.

The civil service, of course, operates in a different environment. But its leaders understand the need to develop deeper specialist skills, and to give functional managers greater status and clout. New civil service chief John Manzoni and commercial boss Sally Collier are clear about the need to improve career pathways for the technical professions – providing a more competitive offer that’s less vulnerable to the financial carrots dangled by private sector recruiters.

So what must the civil service offer to bright, ambitious, inventive people in order to populate its strengthening career pathways? Its public service mission and the range and interest of its work are a good start – but they’re not sufficient. For talented, skilled people want to know they’ll be supported and trained to reach the top of their profession, and recognised and rewarded for doing so. They demand serious influence within their organisations, and participation in wider professional communities. They’d like to play a greater role in fashioning policy – not as consultees to policymakers, but as equal partners in projects where practical delivery is as crucial as political buy-in. And they want the freedom to make plans and the power to deliver them, without having to look on as a thousand risk-averse, turf-protecting stakeholders rob ideas of all substance.

In the world of the civil service, this is quite an ask. The reform plan makes all the right noises, and many of Whitehall’s most powerful figures back the direction of travel. But progress, to date, has been patchy: offering a fairly trivial ‘pivotal role allowance’ for project chiefs who stay in post through a delivery phase, for example, will do little to stem rates of churn as long as the best way to win promotion is to change jobs. There’s a simple truth here: the best way to win promotion must be to demonstrate that you successfully completed your last job.

The government’s approach to strengthening the professions’ capabilities has been to build centres of expertise in the Cabinet Office, giving them powers of oversight and approval which force the departments to raise their game. And this strong central direction is essential – to set the quality benchmark; to provide a source of advice and training; and to forge stronger professions, opening up jobs markets across Whitehall and giving people networks of allies and colleagues. But ultimately, this change cannot be fully implemented from the centre.

Indeed, if the centre grows too powerful, then all the best jobs will be there – and the Cabinet Office will always find itself using an onerous system of scrutiny and approval to firefight problems in relatively weak departmental functions. These central control regimes are an essential first step, but to succeed they must help foster a sustainable improvement in departments – enabling them ultimately to take back the power to decide their own fate. For the best and most talented specialists will find a career spent appeasing the centre’s dictums no more appealing than one bound up in constrictive departmental processes.

The work of transforming the civil service’s offer has begun at the centre – but it will only be complete when the departments eclipse their teachers. As that point eventually approaches, we shall discover whether the Cabinet Office releases the reins, or whether – as is so often the case – those with the power suddenly find many convincing reasons for retaining it.

Matt Ross is the editor of Civil Service World


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