The government has been urged to “fill the void” left by the closure of the National School of Government in 2012 and come up with a coherent strategy for civil service learning and development.
The “premature” closure of the NSG and poor ministerial oversight of civil service learning and development has led to a decentralised and fragmented system in which it is very difficult to account for the money being spent on it, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said.
In a report published today, PACAC said Civil Service Learning, the body set up as part of the Civil Service Reform Plan under former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, had “only partly” replaced the NSG.
Unlike the NSG, CSL has no physical location, little institutional presence and “is not intended to lead thinking about the civil service”. Instead, it acts as a central commissioning body for training rather than a delivery body, the committee said.
Although the report stopped short of recommending that the government re-establish the NSG, it said the government must set up a dedicated institution with a physical presence that is able to offer residential courses.
The institution should build on the Civil Service Leadership Academy, which was set up in 2017 to develop senior civil servants as leaders, the report said.
Although a “welcome recognition of the limitations” of Civil Service Learning, the committee said the CSLA was still at an early stage of development and needed a firmer footing and a clear mission statement with a focus on leadership and governance, to avoid a “dilution of focus”, the report recommended.
The replacement body should be led by a senior official reporting directly to the head of the civil service and the Cabinet Office minister, the MPs said, in a bid to provide better coordination and accountability for learning and development.
Speaking to CSW about the report, PACAC chair Sir Bernard Jenkin said ministers have not been engaged enough in the long-term development of the civil service. Even before the last three years, during which the government has been in a near “permanent state of crisis” owing to the task of negotiating and preparing for Brexit, he said very few ministers were “seriously interested in the civil service as a policy issue”.
“I don’t know when there was a last a serious effort by a prime minister to promote the improvement of capability and leadership in the civil service,” Jenkin said.
In its report, the committee urged the government to set out its strategy and governance structures for civil service learning and development, which it said must have the personal backing of the prime minister and cabinet.
Jenkin said that training that had been developed to support functions and professions in the civil service had been “very much something the civil service has done for itself, albeit at the time with the support of Francis Maude”.
Academies set up by individual civil service professions in recent years and had provided technical skills that “can only be of benefit in policy development”, according to the report.
It urged the policy profession and others that had not yet set up their own academies, which it said had also been a “useful way of promoting [professions’] visibility and coherence”, to do so.
But the MPs also said the decentralisation of learning and development had “come at the price of consistency of approach and, in particular, in the availability of resources”.
“We regard this as a very significant failing, since this loss of consistency leads to lack of coherence and thus of reputation and public confidence in the civil service as a whole.”
Decentralisation “leaves this provision looking haphazard, and has been at the cost of strategic coherence and adequate funding”, they added.
The MPs concluded that most of the estimated £600m that is spent on civil service learning and development was “unaccounted for”, making it difficult to determine whether it was offering value for money.
Of that figure, around £75.6m – around 12% – is spent on Civil Service Learning, with the rest spent via a plethora of departmental and profession-specific academies and initiatives.
“This raises the fundamental question about the leadership and governance of overall learning and development,” the report said.
Elsewhere in the report, the committee welcomed plans for a National Leadership Centre – previously known as the Centre for Public Leadership – a “capstone” institution that will aim to develop top leaders across all public services.
The centre, which has been assigned £21m over three years, will offer training to the most senior figures in the civil service, alongside other top public servants.
Although the MPs did not specify how much funding their proposed learning institution should have, Jenkin noted that no comparable sum had been allotted to any of the existing civil service programmes.
“Ministers need to back the Civil Service Leadership Academy so that it actually develops the kind of leadership development for the National Leadership Centre is doing for the whole public sector,” Jenkin said.
“But it also needs to go much deeper down the structure of civil service, it can't just be the highest echelons,” he said.