The introduction to our 2012 Permanent Secretaries’ Round-Up (see p13) reveals that civil service leaders, asked to name the issues that have dominated their attention this year, most frequently cite economic growth, policy delivery, organisational reform and the Olympics. This neatly matches their predictions, offered a year ago, of the challenges they’d face in 2012; and asked now to anticipate their preoccupations during 2013, they expect the first three to loom large again.
There is, however, one further issue that has come out of nowhere to occupy permanent secretaries’ minds this year. When their articles are read in the round, one topic is mentioned by nearly half of all contributors – more than name any of the other challenges listed above. This is the need to improve skills and strengthen training.
Skills and training represent a new preoccupation: from a handful of mentions in 2011, they’ve grown to receive more attention than any topic since 2010 – when half wrote about achieving ‘more for less’. But their popularity is no surprise: just look at the other challenges facing Whitehall.
Departments are being asked to make massive organisational changes, adapt policies to stimulate economic growth, and deploy a new range of policy delivery techniques such as ‘open’ policymaking, partnerships with third parties, and payment by results; all of which require a set of skills rare in the civil service. They also need to greatly strengthen their IT, project management and procurement skills – amongst others – and to embrace new agendas such as open data and digital by default.
These requirements have, of course, come at a time when departments have lost large numbers of staff, with all their expertise, skills, experience and capacity. The only way forward for civil service leaders now is to reskill and develop their remaining workforces to meet the challenges facing them. Meanwhile, civil service training has itself undergone massive reform, with the vast majority outsourced and departments instructed to buy courses through the Civil Service Learning (CSL) portal.
CSL has yet to bed in, and remains unproven. We don’t yet have figures on whether training volumes have declined; certainly, few Whitehall training budgets have escaped the cuts. But if top officials are to meet the challenges they face, they’ll have to raid their ever-shrinking funds for more training; and much of it will have to come via CSL.
The Major Projects Leadership Academy (p32) and Commissioning Academy (p19) are innovative ways to develop particular professions (and may offer useful ideas for IT specialists), but to train the wider body of civil servants the departments and professions will have to work with CSL to source the training they require. It’s clearly not ideal that, as the civil service finds itself in urgent need of really good training to deliver transformation on many fronts, the training function is itself undergoing a thorough overhaul. But the government has produced a new system for civil service training; the civil service has no option but to make it work.