NAO flags failings in departments’ senior-leadership development

Report says differing expectations could pose “challenges” for staff moving between organisations
National Audit Office HQ

By Jim Dunton

21 Oct 2022

A National Audit Office investigation into the civil service’s leadership training offer has uncovered a lack of cross-departmental communication and non-aligned expectations that could hamper senior officials moving to different organisations.

The public-spending watchdog’s findings come in a just-published examination of leadership development for the senior civil service that is designed to feed into a wider programme of work on improving people management across government.

The Cabinet Office is responsible for developing a central offer for leadership training, and the 28 government professions also have their own programmes.  Departments are entitled to determine which development programmes are right for their own leaders, but the NAO reported that “not all” departments were familiar with the Cabinet Office’s central offer.

Departments can also buy in other development training for their leaders, or create it themselves.

The NAO said conversations with four departments – the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the Ministry of Justice – had revealed potentially wasteful and unconstructive shortcomings in department-level work.

Its report, attributed to NAO head Gareth Davies, said the sample departments had adopted different approaches to setting out expectations of their leaders and assessing their leadership capability.

“This could create challenges for civil servants who experience different expectations and training approaches when they move between departments,” the report said.

“From our conversations there appears to be some duplication of effort, where different departments are seeking to deliver similar interventions.

“In doing so, they often have little knowledge of what other government organisations are doing and may be missing opportunities to learn from each other.”

The report cited several recent NAO reports in which leadership failings were identified as major problems – including the Home Office’s Digital Services at the Border programme and multiple Ministry of Defence equipment programmes.

“Leaders need to deliver ministers’ priorities, while also meeting their responsibility to parliament to safeguard public money,” it said.

“In our work we have seen leadership working effectively. For example, the Covid-19 vaccination programme built a team with the right leadership, skills and experience to make clear, timely and reliable decisions, and also recognised the uncertainties of delivering at speed and managed these.

“However, we have also seen examples of policy initiatives not realising their potential or even failing entirely when effective leadership is not in place. Leaders need the knowledge, skills and networks to lead well, supported by healthy ways of working in the organisation.”

The report also highlighted findings in the 2021 Civil Service People Survey that showed only around half of staff in HMRC, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the MoD had confidence in the decisions made by senior leaders in their organisation.

A government spokesperson said the NAO report was a welcome document that summarised many of the civil service training and development reforms made in recent years.

“We are committed to equipping current and future leaders with the skills they need to grow the economy, tackle the cost of living and deliver vital public services,” they said.

“That is why last year we launched a new training campus, enabling civil servants to develop their knowledge through a single curriculum. Through the Leadership College for Government, we also recently published a new learning prospectus, which sets out our initial plans to reform leadership and management development.”

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