Sedwill says civil service needs a 'physical campus' for training

Former cabinet secretary also tells MPs officials need to be incentivised to stay in their jobs for longer
Lord Mark Sedwill Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

11 Mar 2024

Former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill has told senior MPs the civil service needs a "physical campus" for learning – more than a decade after the National School of Government closed its doors for the final time.

Sedwill's comments came at an evidence session for a sub-group of parliament's Liaison Committee, which brings together the chairs of House of Commons select committees. It is probing strategic thinking in government.

The National School of Government – also known as the Civil Service College – at Sunningdale Park in Berkshire closed in 2012 and was subsequently sold to property developers. Ministers have since resisted calls for the creation of a new physical training base in favour of an online offer.

At last week's committee session, Sedwill told MPs there was a need for a learning environment where politicians and officials from different parts of the public sector could meet, exchange ideas and learn from each other.

"I think you need a physical campus," he said. "Particularly if we are going to put together ministers, potential ministers, rising stars in the civil service and parliament, and local government leaders, both political and official.

"The network effect you get from those people just being in the same room, having coffee and getting to know each other, is really beneficial, because then you understand the different tensions and cultures.

"Quite often in conversations like these, you have ministers complaining that civil servants are not political enough and civil servants complaining that politicians are too political, and vice versa. People have got to understand each other’s imperatives and cultures, and you cannot do that online."

Sedwill acknowledged there was a role for online learning. But he said it was fundamentally better for some kinds of learning to take place in person.

"Strategic thinking is largely a creative process, and the creative process works best in an organic environment where people can kick ideas around," he said. "In my view, you have to do that in person."

Slowing civil service churn

Sedwill was asked for his thoughts on moves to ensure that senior responsible owners of projects stay in post for longer, including measures being explored by the Ministry of Defence to require SROs to serve three terms in post to ensure they stick with programmes for the long haul.

The former cabinet secretary acknowledged that he did not achieve as much as he would have liked with regard to cutting down on churn in the civil service.

"What you have to do is create the right career incentives for people to stay in a job, because if they are going to get better pay, promotion, more recognition, broader experience and a better chance at big jobs elsewhere by moving around, the strong incentive for the really good people is to move around," he said.

"We have to try to create as strong a set of incentives for someone to see something through, so that they do not find that when they go to a promotion board, they say, 'Well, they’re just a bit of a one-trick pony. They did a great job on that, but they don’t have the breadth we need for a job at the next level up'."

Sedwill said there was a tension that needed to be resolved if government was going to encourage talented people to stick at things for longer in the civil service.

"I remember being told by a very senior permanent secretary in my own career, 'Look, you need to stick at some things for a while, and then you can be a bit of a dilettante. You can move around quickly again, but then you need to stick at something else for a while'. I think that is right," he said.

Equally problematic ministerial churn

The former cabinet secretary said ministerial churn was equally problematic – and a barrier to achieving government objectives.

He said prime ministers who want a government that actually delivers big things would be well advised to "put ministers in place, train them properly, and leave them there for as long as they can".

"Sometimes, politics means they cannot," he said. "But generally, we rotate ministers in this country much faster than they do elsewhere.

"We have more ministers; we have a cabinet that is roughly twice the size of the US cabinet. We have more of them and we rotate them faster. They do not necessarily have expertise in their areas – it is quite rare for them to do so.

"To build that expertise up takes time. If you're just moving people around all the time, not only do they not have the capacity to do any real strategic planning and thinking, but they have none of the incentives to, because they know they are likely to be moved on. Therefore, they are inevitably going to be focused on the short term."

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