Maude: 'Long live the generalist!'

We still need generalists, says the Cabinet Office minister. By Winnie Agbonlahor.

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

19 Aug 2014

“Long live the generalist!” said Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude at Civil Service Live last month. In a session named ‘Long Term Vision’, Maude told
the audience that the term had become “kind of a dirty word” in the past, but argued that having people with generalist skills is essential – and “not just in the civil service”.

Maude said that during the development of the Civil Service Reform Plan, a permanent secretary told him that “of course, the age of the generalist has gone” – a statement which he “meekly accepted” at the time. But, he said, “it neither is true nor should it be true. Being a generalist doesn’t mean you don’t know anything or have specialist knowledge – most will do. Generalist skills are: analysis; the marshalling of evidence; the marshalling and using of expertise. We have loads of great generalists.” 

People are hesitant to describe themselves as generalists, Maude said, because they don’t feel “they have permission to say: ‘I don’t know how to do this’.” But “people need to be able to say: ‘I don’t have all the knowledge. My skill is to marshal those who do, use them and mobilise it’.” 

Maude’s comments echo the view of Oliver Letwin, minister for government policy in the Cabinet Office, who said in September 2012 that “civil servants have to work with scientists, statisticians, economists, who are experts, but they are people who are generalists”.

However, they appear to run counter to ten years of increasing specialisation and clash with the views of some civil servants. Sally Evans, then head of organisational capability at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said at CSL in Bristol in 2013 that the organisation had banned the word “generalist”. And Ruth Owen, head of the operational delivery profession, told CSW in April that she’s not comfortable with the word. People change professions, she

said, but “that doesn’t mean you’re a generalist; it means you have a career pathway”.

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