The government’s new Centre for Public Leadership is “not a Whitehall initiative” and must not be thought of as such, according to the author of the report that led to its establishment.
Appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week, Sir Gerry Grimstone stressed that the centre, the plan for which was announced in last year’s Budget, must be thought of as a pan-public service institution – although he later said it could lead to more resources being dedicated to training initiatives within the civil service.
The centre will train public servants who are on the cusp of leading major organisations. Grimstone told the committee it should act as a “horizontal capping stone” sitting at the top of several public services or “verticals”, including not only the civil service but also the police force, the fire service and the schools system.
“Something I should absolutely stress is this is not a Whitehall initiative. This is something done collectively by the public services,” he said.
“It will be death of this enterprise if public services around the country thought this was something owned by Whitehall, run by Whitehall. This is something the public services will have come together themselves and want to use to create better leaders.”
Grimstone, lead non-executive director at the Ministry of Defence and chair of Standard Life and Barclays Bank, was responding to the committee’s questions on the extent to which the centre would replicate the now-defunct National School of Government. The Cabinet Office-run body that coordinated and delivered training and development for the civil service until it closed in 2012.
Committee chair Bernard Jenkin said MPs felt some “chagrin” that the government was spending £21m to establish the pan-public service centre rather than focusing on the civil service alone. Last year PACAC said it was a “mistake” to abolish the National School of Government without establishing a replacement.
But Grimstone said bringing leaders of diverse services together would benefit all of them, helping them to take a wider view of public-sector operations than the "vertical" – in management speak – of their own organisation. As well as training around 100 people per year initially, he said the centre would aim to facilitate networking between a wider cohort of around 1,000 future leaders, enabling them to learn from each other.
“We found in our research a surprising feeling of loneliness and isolationism if you are a CEO of one of these organisations,” he said. “To be able to turn to people outside your vertical for advice and support may be easier sometimes than to turn to someone who is a bit too close to home.”
He added that only 8% of public servants work in the civil service. “If looking at optimising public services, there’s a number of verticals where you need to do that.”
“If I can take a personal view, I think this country has been too absorbed in the verticals… [but] it’s the interaction at the top between these verticals which is likely to produce better public services for our citizens.”
And he suggested that if the centre is deemed a success, it could lead to more civil service-specific leadership training and “encourage resources to be directed elsewhere”.
“I think if the work this centre does shows it produces real measurable, tangible advances for this country, I suspect those in any of the verticals will have an easier case to make as to why money properly spent on training and management is money well spent.”
Part of the centre’s work will be in “topping up” trainees’ understanding of topics important to their area of leadership, such as artificial intelligence or big data, Grimstone told the committee.
Responding to concerns that the civil service is dominated by generalists rather than specialists, he said that chief executives of major organisations, must “almost by definition” become generalists.
But he added that the development of professions in the civil service was “laudable”.
“The development of the professions, the training that is now given within professions in Whitehall – frankly it’s light years away from where it was in my time and that is to be encouraged,” he said.
"Trapped by the pipeline"
Grimstone was also questioned about whether the centre would boost diversity across public services.
He said that would be a challenge because the centre would train candidates nominated by their organisations who are already in senior positions – who tend to be less of a diverse group than those lower down in the workforce. For example, civil servants nominated for training could include director generals tipped as potential future cabinet secretaries.
“In a sense, we’re all of us trapped a little bit at the moment by the pipeline,” he said. “This centre’s work is towards the end of the pipeline, rather than the beginning of the pipeline [which is where diversity efforts should be focused to promote people up to].”
However, he said the centre's courses would include diversity training to encourage future leaders to promote diversity within their organisations, which committee member Rupa Huq said was “reassuring”.
He said this would help the centre to achieve its objective of boosting productivity because “diverse workforces are more productive”.