Chris Wormald urges civil servants to ‘go back to school’

Policy profession head wants to emulate overseas governments where officials are better educated


By Tamsin.Rutter

11 Jun 2018

The Department of Health and Social Care permanent secretary has urged civil servants to “go back to school” at some point during their careers.

Sir Chris Wormald, who also serves as head of the civil service policy profession, said he wants to build a culture in the UK civil service to match that of many governments overseas where officials are more highly educated.

At an event hosted by the Institute for Government think tank yesterday on the civil service’s links with academia, Wormald said it was important to ensure departments build systems which embed access to research into policymaking processes.


During the conference, which coincided with the launch of IfG report How government can work with academia, Wormald outlined ways in which the civil service could get better at using academic research to inform policy.

One of his suggestions was for civil servants to spend more time developing themselves in higher education.

He said: “Civil servants do not go back to school enough. It is one of the big differences between us and most of our comparator civil services. No one from the US civil service, the Canadian civil service, German civil service, French civil service, doesn’t have at least a Master’s.”

He said he wanted to build in the UK civil service a “culture of going back to school, mixing with academics”. He pointed to the London School of Economics’ Executive Master of Public Policy, which is only available to members of the UK civil service.

Wormald later said he felt it was less important what the qualification is, and more about building a culture where officials expect that they will do some kind of studying as part of their career.

Among his other recommendations for civil servants, were that they should develop both their formal and informal networks with academics and the intermediary bodies that can help officials navigate the world of research. He also said that despite a large proportion of civil servants having studied social sciences, government actually has worse links with social science academia than it does with “hard science”.

Also speaking at the IfG conference, Sir John Kingman, chair of UK Research and Innovation, argued that the research budgets of departments have been cut too much, and stated that DHSC is “an outlier in its commitment to funding of research” to support policymaking.

Of the £9bn a year spent by the UK government to fund research, around £1bn is spent by DHSC alone. The IfG report picked out the department’s practice of maintaining a pool of academic researchers through which officials can commission rapid evidence reviews as an area of best practice.

Kingman said the research budget of DHSC is “completely unique”. He added: “Every other department, to varying degrees, has very heavily cut back on its funding of research… [as] budgets have got squeezed.

“I think there’s a cost to this. One of the things UKRI will certainly be wanting to seek to persuade the government of, is that actually this is short-sighted and that we would see better policymaking if departments can be persuaded to fund research more appropriately.”

Kingman, former second permanent secretary at HM Treasury, also said that “knowledge had been squeezed out of the system” due to increasingly high turnover rates in government, and that “something had been lost along the way” as a result.

He said the civil service of 2016 – when he left government – had fewer “people knocking around who had worked in areas of policy for a very long time and knew a lot about them” than the civil service of 1991, when he joined.

He added that there were pros and cons to this. Civil servants who stay in post for longer do not always give the “freshest look” to policy problems, Kingman said, but they have often built up personal relationships over time, including with academics, which informs their policymaking.

He also said: “It’s also true that the leadership of departments, for better or worse, tends to be far fewer people who have actually built up a deep background in the area.”

Most of the current permanent secretaries are new to the issues over which they preside, he said.

Responding to these concerns, Wormald conceded that he had “no health background whatsoever”. But he said it was more important to “build knowledge into your organisation”, and ensure that processes by which policymakers are made aware of the latest research are “systematised into what the department does”.

He said the “flipside” to Kingman’s point was that the civil service in the past has “been over-reliant on people with memory as opposed to group knowledge management systems”.

Wormald joined DHSC in 2016 from the Department for Education, where he said he’d done some analysis on which jobs within the department required depth of knowledge. At DfE, he said around 70% of jobs needed people with deep knowledge of a particular topic, while the remaining 30% of staff were required to have flexible skills. The breakdown would be different in other departments, he added.

UKRI is a new national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK. It began operating in April, and brings together seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

It is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

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