'Ad-hoc' approach to civil service skills isn't working, think tank warns

Skilled businesspeople should get the chance to work in government with 'ethical safeguards', says report calling for skills strategy
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The civil service has been warned that it will continue to face significant skills gaps and struggle to tackle future challenges unless it develops a joined-up strategy to increase Whitehall expertise.

While there are many skilled professionals and specialists in the civil service, poor data and an ad-hoc approach to training mean government is missing out on the benefits they could provide, according to the Institute for Government.

Alongside a more structured, long-term approach to developing skills, the civil service should also look at ways to draw on the expertise of other organisations and give officials the chance to work in other public and private sector roles to strengthen their own capabilities.

The IfG’s latest report paints a picture of a civil service where skills development is patchy, fragmented and lacks the accountability needed to implement meaningful changes.

It said the government should enable different parts of the public sector to learn from each other by setting up exchanges, secondments and shadowing between the NHS, police forces, local government and central government; and encourage “technically skilled people” from business to spend time working in government.

This should be done with “clear ethical safeguards”, says the report, which comes amid an ongoing row over the role of private companies in government and second appointments for civil servants.

Civil service dominated by generalists a myth

The report has also called for a strategy that will enable the civil service to anticipate the long-term skills it will need; adapt to technological developments; and handle the kinds of projects the government plans to prioritise in future.

In particular, the strategy must show how the civil service will grow its data, digital, finance, project and portfolio management capability, it says.

The organisation is “not yet set up” to respond to tech developments that will change the nature of the government workforce, especially in data and digital specialisms; or to manage all of the projects ministers want to deliver.

Goals such as hitting net zero and improving infrastructure will require more expert project and portfolio managers, for example.

But while there are clear skills gaps, the perception that the civil service is mostly made up of generalists is “not accurate”, the IfG argues.

In fact, front-line operational delivery specialists make up more than half of the workforce, and the government is a “large employer of a range of specialists, including scientists and engineers, data, digital and technology experts, commercial professionals, analysts and project managers”.

However, data on these skills is poor and prevents government from making the best use of them, the think tank says.

“Consistent information is lacking and different data collection systems across departments mean that civil service leaders do not know enough about their workforce or how best to deploy it,” it says.

The civil service must therefore “urgently” commit to gathering more information of skills in a systematic way, and for that data to be used to match skills to priority projects. The data should also be shared across departments and professions to address wider priorities, it says.

The report also calls on government to use more cross-disciplinary groups made up of officials and external experts “different and complementary skill sets” to reap more benefits from this expertise.

Accountability is lacking

The civil service also lacks clear accountability for developing skills, according to the report. Responsibility for this area is fractured, with permanent secretaries in charge of running departments but function heads tasked with developing specialist skills.

“The Cabinet Office’s influence over skills development in departments is patchy and relatively weak, with departments historically able to avoid taking part in programmes they did not agree to,” it adds.

Training is seen as a “nice to have”, the report found, meaning that training budgets have been cut, some of the teams coordinating government functions are not adequately resourced and managers are not held to account for developing people they manage.

“Opportunities for development are too rare for those civil servants who are not new starters or not considered top talent,” the report said.

To address these issues, managers should set clearer development goals and training courses should be created to enhance core skills like numeracy, collaborating within and across teams, and core digital ability, it argues. Training should also be accredited and better assessed for quality, it added.

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