Opinion: Lord Ara Darzi

The civil service has to develop specialist policymaking skills, says Lord Darzi – and that requires topical professional qualifications

By CivilServiceWorld

08 Feb 2012

A lack of specialist knowledge within the civil service is hindering policymakers from making the best decisions about our future. We need to move beyond the generalist model if we’re going to create solutions to the huge pressures of the 21st century. One way to achieve this would be to professionalise the civil service further.

The civil service claims to have a policy profession. Yet unlike law, architecture or my own profession of medicine, until now there have been no professional qualifications for policymakers. That has changed with a new MSc in Health Policy that I have established at Imperial College London.

This idea came to me when I was a minister at the Department of Health – I worked with a number of talented junior and middle-ranking civil servants seeking to make the best policy decisions, and when I compared the learning opportunities they had with what junior doctors would receive, I felt there was something missing.

It takes five years of training to become a fully-qualified doctor, but you can make health policy affecting 50 million patients with no specific qualifications at all. So when I stepped down from my ministerial role, I considered the possibility of developing a masters course in health policy. It would be a chance to give some of the best policymakers a real academic grounding, developing their knowledge and skills.

At a discussion hosted by think-tank the Institute for Government (IfG) last month, I spoke alongside Una O’ Brien, the permanent secretary of the Department of Health, about the course and discussed whether it could be a model for other courses in different fields.

Already under way, this course is the first of its kind. It’s a two-year part-time programme, with the teaching concentrated into four intensive fortnightly teaching blocks. This allows participants to get immersed in the course, but then switch back to work outside this time.

The course also requires an individual dissertation project, which we have encouraged participants to align with their day job. That will minimise additional work and also hopefully lead them to carry out a rigorous piece of work that might otherwise have cost thousands of pounds in consultancy fees.

While most participants at the Institute for Government event were supportive of more learning and training opportunities for civil servants, Una articulated some of the management challenges that need to be addressed if postgraduate courses for civil servants are to become more common. In the current financial climate, it is a challenge to secure funding, and it is vital that value for money is demonstrated through applying a rigorous selection procedure to the choice of courses. There is the opportunity cost of not procuring other types of training to consider, as well as the challenge of releasing people from busy roles in order to study. There is also the need to ensure that the opportunity to study is available to staff at all grades and that the selection of participants is fair, otherwise there could be a negative impact on morale.

The Department of Health has committed to send 20 civil servants a year (from a range of grades and from both their London and Leeds offices) for the first three cohorts. We hope that they will learn from their peers in other sectors they’ll be studying with; the MSc is not solely for central government policymakers. In an increasingly devolved NHS policy will need to be made at all levels, and we have NHS managers, doctors and employees of pharmaceutical companies in our first cohort. So it is also an opportunity for civil servants to meet with people from a range of other backgrounds and discuss ideas.

The IfG has been closely involved in scrutinising the set-up of the course and will play a key role in evaluating it, with a report to be published once the first group has graduated. Depending on the outcome of the evaluation, this course could act as a model for similar courses for other departments. For instance, why not have MScs in transport or environmental policy? Health does not have a monopoly on complex policy problems requiring a deep understanding of technical subject matter.
I should make clear that I’m not advocating that all civil servants have to have relevant postgraduate qualifications – an effective department needs a diverse, agile and flexible work force with different skills.

However, I do believe that in this mix of skills we need some specialist policymakers. Providing our policymakers with an opportunity to expand their understanding, refine their policymaking skills, and achieve a professional qualification will only improve the chance of finding sustainable, long-lasting policy solutions. ?

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