The next iteration of the Civil Service Learning scheme will boast a revamped digital service and courses that are more "tailored" and relevant to the needs of departments when it launches in March, CSL director Hilary Spencer has vowed.
CSL was introduced in 2012 as a centralised way for departments to buy generic training for their staff. It was brought in following the abolition of the dedicated National School of Government training centre in Ascot, and has attempted to reduce the amount spent on civil service training, standardise courses, and end the practice of departments dealing directly with suppliers, often at different rates.
A report by a committee of MPs last year found that CSL had "allowed training budgets to be reduced significantly" and had broadened access to learning and development for officials.
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But the Public Administration Committee expressed caution about a potential over-reliance on e-learning, while unions told the committee they felt the curriculum was too narrowly focused on generic skills at the expense of specialist training. Then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude rated the training programme "six-ish" out of ten.
In an interview with Civil Service World – to be published in full next week – Spencer said the next phase of CSL, prompted by a shake-up of the contracts for Whitehall training, would take on board lessons from the scheme's first four years, including the need for a more user-friendly interface and greater involvement from departments.
"We're redesigning our digital service so hopefully people will find it much easier to find the learning they want and book onto it and attend," Spencer said. "All those kind of transactional processes should be much, much better. We're working closely with the Government Digital Service to improve our digital service there.
"The second thing is that people should find an offer which has been co-created with civil servants so that it clearly reflects their needs.
"And the third thing they should find is that we're able to tailor more of it to what they want. In practice, what that means is we might be using a wider range of internal experts from the civil service to co-deliver some of the elements of our learning. There are things on which we are the experts in the civil service – and we ought to make use of that internal expertise.
"But there will also be greater personalisation, tailoring, in terms of how people want to learn. At the moment people's default, when they think about learning, is either e-learning or a face-to-face programme, and what we would like is to give people more choices about how they access learning.
"So we will make better use of digital technology, but also make better use of different ways of configuring learning – two-hour blocs, seminars, masterclasses, learning sets, leaders teaching leaders. There's a whole range of things we'd like to make more use of in the contracts."
CSL itself – which comes under the responsibility of the Cabinet Office – has been restructured to become more responsive to departments, Spencer said, in a bid to become "much more focused along customer lines".
"We now have a team which looks after departments and professions specifically and can provide much more of that bespoke service," she added.
"People can tell us what they want and need and that we're responsive to feedback – so we've got account managers for different departments and different professions and we've hired in some new people to take that forward. That's been a big internal focus for us and how we're structured."
Under the current CSL deal, departments buy training for staff through a single system overseen by Capita, which sub-contracts courses from smaller suppliers. But the Cabinet Office announced at the end of last year that when the contract with Capita ends in March, it would be split into four separate lots with different suppliers focusing on different training needs.
The first two lots have been awarded to Korn Ferry Hay Group, which will lead on senior civil service training, and a consortium led by KPMG will develop the core curriculum for skills common to all civil servants.
Elsewhere in her Civil Service World interview, Spencer explained that CSL is currently working with both suppliers on plans for a new leadership academy for senior civil servants.
Such a move had been urged by MPs who warned last year that top officials were currently "not getting access to the sort of training they require" to confront the "unique challenges faced by public service leaders".
Outlining the latest thinking on the academy idea – which civil service chief John Manzoni has said is likely to occupy a "dedicated" physical site – Spencer said CSL was "still working up options" for how it would work in practice.
But she said the design of the academy would involve departments – and could take cues from governments overseas.
"There are lots of different models for how you can set up something like a leadership academy," she said.
"Some common features seem to be that it helps establish leadership as a real priority, as a discipline; that it provides a space, whether virtual or physical, for leaders to get together to build more of a common sense of a leadership cadre and a leadership culture; and also that it provides support and challenge for leaders who are facing a range of challenges across their business.
"Those seem the three quite high-level principles in terms of what other organisations are doing. We're working really closely with John and others and with our new suppliers to scope up some of those options in more detail – and our plan is over the next few months to consult more widely across government, draw on some of the expertise of our non-executive directors, and those in industry and outside to firm up those proposals in much more detail."
According to the latest Civil Service People Survey, staff satisfaction with learning and development has almost recovered to its 2009-10 levels, after suffering a sharp seven-point drop (from 50% satisfaction to 43%) between 2009 and 2010.
Engagement scores have gradually climbed since, and the latest cross-Whitehall average puts satisfaction with learning and development at 49%.
Editorial note: For disclosure, Civil Service World's parent company Dods provides training courses under the current CSL model