MPs call for action to boost Whitehall skills and make it easier to retain top staff

MPs on the Public Administration Committee warn Capability Plan focus too 'narrow' and mid-management skills being 'hollowed out'

By matt.foster

17 Mar 2015

The civil service needs to carry out an “honest appraisal” of the skills it lacks as well its ability to ensure the best officials aren't poached by the private sector, a cross-party group of MPs has said.

Ministers published the Capability Plan, a fresh strategy for boosting Whitehall skills and performance, in 2013. But the latest report from the Public Administration Select Committee warns its focus is “too narrow and one-dimensional”, and calls more to be done to strengthen the “complementary and supportive skills” civil servants need to do their jobs.

At present, the plan focuses on four areas seen as most vital to improving Whitehall skills: leading and managing change; commercial skills and behaviours; programme and project management; and digital skills. PASC’s report flags up concern that the civil service still lacks the ability to provide proper training in vital areas including risk management and the proper use of data.

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The MPs say spending watchdog the National Audit Office should be asked to regularly look at what can be done to improve skills across Whitehall, and they call for the Capabilities Plan to be expanded so that it also takes into account “the specialist skill needs generic to all departments”.

“It is essential that any central audit of Civil Service skills is both open and honest,” the report says. “Many parts of the Civil Service currently operate under severe resourcing constraints. However, without an honest appraisal of where skill gaps lie, further failures, such as the cancellation of the West Coast mainline franchise competition, are unavoidable. Short-term presentational gains should not be given preference over long-term cost for the taxpayer.”

While PASC welcomes the intention to bolster support for leaders in Whitehall through a new Civil Service Leadership Academy, it says current training for senior officials still suffers from a “heavy reliance” on on-the-job learning at the expense of more effective methods.

“In times of significant financial constraints, good leadership is the key enabling factor that will allow the Civil Service to continue to deliver the Government’s objectives,” the report says. 

“The Cabinet Office rightly appears to be focusing on skills in this area. However, despite this focus, we have learned that leaders are not getting access to the sort of training they require. The ongoing need for the Civil Service to do more with less applies to all elements of its operation, including training. However, where possible, greater efforts should be made to provide access to, and space for, conceptual, reflective and experimental learning.”

The report recommends that the new chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni, be given responsibility for ensuring “coherent, efficient and effective” leadership training provision across all of Whitehall.

'Potentially misplaced'

The committee also finds evidence that while Civil Service Learning - the training programme brought in to replace the National School of Government - has brought reductions in training budgets and allowed civil servants wider access to “generic training”, it may be putting too much emphasis on “lighter and narrower” online learning.

“For many skills, particularly those requiring interpersonal skills, the introduction of a strong, and potentially misplaced, dependence on e-learning is no substitute for the face-to-face residential learning and mentoring they replaced,” it says.

Those concerns echo a 2013 study of Whitehall training carried out by Civil Service World which found just six per cent of officials believed e-learning was the most valuable form of training, while 29 per cent described it as the least valuable.

'Hollowed out'

As well as sounding the alarm on training provision, PASC issues a warning on the civil service’s ability hold on to its best staff in the face of better-paid career alternatives in the private sector.

While the report acknowledges that a climate of economic austerity is “a reality that the Civil Service will continue to face”, and says churn at the top of Whitehall appears to be low, it warns that mid-management is being “significantly hollowed out” with a resultant loss of skills.

And it says that the Pivotal Role Allowance - brought in to allow departments to boost pay in jobs deemed “most critical” in a bid to reduce churn - is acting as “a token gesture, not a sufficient response to this challenge”.

“The modern Civil Service is increasingly charged with finding more intelligent ways of solving problems and making efficient use of funding,” the report says. “The Government should ensure that this approach is continually applied to its policy on Civil Service pay. If this is not done the Civil Service will needlessly lose expensively gained skills and knowledge, which it will struggle to replace.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union - which represents senior civil servants and public sector managers - welcomed the committee’s call for a focus on pay.

“The evidence for taking action is compelling if we are to avoid an ‘exodus’ of the skilled and talented people most needed to deliver the new administrations challenging programme for Government,” he said. “As PASC recommends, this needs to be a priority for the incoming Government in May”.


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