It was “a mistake” to abolish the National School of Government without developing an institution of similar substance across the civil service, a cross-party group of MPs conducting an inquiry into civil service effectiveness has concluded.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee found that Civil Service Learning and other programmes developed to replace the NSG have left gaps in the learning and development offer for officials.
PACAC announced it will conduct a new review into the case for replacing the National School for Government, in a report, The Minister and the Official: The Fulcrum of Civil Service Effectiveness, published today.
The report refers to the Civil Service Leadership Academy and the Centre for Public Service Leadership as examples of replacement training offers, but argues that these programmes do not provide the “crucial anchoring role” that the National School of Government did.
Its abolition in 2012 “left a gap in [civil servants’] learning and development that subsequent provision has failed to fill”, it said.
The National School of Government, run by the Cabinet Office, coordinated and delivered training and development for the civil service. It was replaced by Civil Service Learning, which emphasises e-learning and accessibility, and commissions more external providers and delivers less in-house training than its predecessor.
The report outlines some of the reasons for scrapping the NSG, including savings targets, increasing access to training for staff in junior roles, and then-Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude’s desire to import skills into Whitehall from the private sector.
However, PACAC said: “The civil service needs its own institution, where civil service thinkers, educators and leaders have the space to reflect on how the civil service should be more mindful of itself, its challenges and its future.
“The institution would transmit the values, attitudes and positive behaviours vital to the future strength of the civil service from generation to generation.”
CSL’s training offering is “lighter and narrower”, according to a report by PACAC’s predecessor committee. FDA general secretary Dave Penman is quoted in today’s report: “There is growing recognition across the civil service that the decision that was taken around the National School of Government is one that they regret and that they are striving to find ways to replace it, both in its capacity and in the breadth of what it delivered for the civil service.”
The committee chair, Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, pointed out that all other comparable countries have a body equivalent to the National School of Government.
“Ours was abolished in 2012 for some understandable reasons, but it was a mistake to lose, rather than to improve, this vital capability,” he added. “This will be the subject of our next inquiry in this area.”
This follow-up inquiry will commence after the taskforce of Sir Gerry Grimstone, who was appointed in May to chair a review of the quality of leadership across the public sector, has made some headway.
Jenkin also commended PACAC’s inquiry into civil service effectiveness, which is the first select committee review that has managed to secure open cooperation from Whitehall on the sensitive matter of the relationship between civil servants and ministers.
“We have used research based on full access and private interviews with civil servants and ministers,” he said. “This unparalleled research has already facilitated a more open conversation about how to support the crucial minister-official relationship.”
The report recommends that more attention be given to establish “firm foundations for the working relationship between ministers and officials”, with time carved out for new ministers to discuss their priorities and preferred ways of working with senior officials.
It also argues that effective planning and prioritisation – which is all the more essential given the task of preparing for Brexit – depends on the strength of the relationship between ministers and officials. “Single Departmental Plans should be at the heart of discussions about priorities but they are not yet delivering the promised link between the allocation of resources and delivery of priorities,” it added.
A government spokesperson said: “We welcome PACAC’s inquiry and subsequent report regarding the relationships between government ministers and civil servants. We are reviewing the findings and recommendations and will work closely with PACAC to support their inquiry into the wider learning offer for government.”