Sustained investment needed to build generalist skills in the civil service, study warns

Researchers warn UK is not doing enough to build general public administration skills among officials, and call for better collaboration between government and academia to create courses for officials
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By Tevye Markson

24 Jun 2024

The civil service is at risk of becoming increasingly inefficient and ineffective without long-term, sustained investment in building the skills of public administration, a new study warns. 

The research says some positive steps have been made by the government in recent years to increase investment in the development of civil service staff, but warns that after decades of under-investment, the UK is not doing enough to build generalist, public administration skills.

“For decades, the UK has steadily reduced the amount of training and development for public service professionals and, where this has taken place, it has increasingly been in professional silos rather than collaborative, generalist subject areas such as public administration,” the study says. 

It also calls for more collaboration between government and academia to improve education programmes for public servants, saying:  “While examples of good practice exist, links between the public sector and higher education in the UK are generally precarious and poorly institutionalised.”

The study, Educating a civil service that is fit for purpose: perceptions from UK stakeholders, published today in Public Money and Management, explored the status, demand and success of of public administration education in the UK.

Co-authored by academics at four universities, its findings are based on focus groups with public administrators, including officials in civil service, local government and industry bodies, alongside academic researchers and professors of public administration.

The paper outlines several positive developments in recent years in the UK such as the creation of the Leadership College for Government; the establishment of the UK Association for Public Administration by UK universities; and the development of the UK's first Subject Benchmark Statement for public policy and public administration. Subject benchmark statements describe the nature of the subject and define the academic standards that can be expected of a graduate, in terms of what they might know, do and understand at the end of their studies.

Despite these encouraging signs, the study says that the UK is lagging behind countries like Canada, France, Australia and New Zealand when it comes to the development of administration skills in public servants.

It described a "stark contrast" between the amount of public administration courses in the UK compared to these countries, noting that "the lack of UK university involvement (with a small number of exceptions) in supporting the professional development and education of public servants has also been articulated by the Joint University Council" which found that the State of Minnesota has eight universities offering MPA programmes, while Scotland, with a similar population size, has just one  MPA programme.

The study calls for long-term, sustained investment in education and continuous professional development across the public sector, and for learning and development directorates in national, regional and local government to work more closely with public administration academics to develop bespoke programmes that better meet the needs of the UK public sector. 

On investment, the research paper says the demise of the Royal Institute of Public Administration and National School of Government in 1992 and 2012 respectively have been “huge losses with significant consequences”, many of which came to light during the Covid-19 pandemic and through the resultant inquiry. “While moves are being made to address this, there continues to be a lack of understanding and recognition of public administration as the key subject area for public servants,” the study adds.

“Without sustained long-term investment in education, training and continuous professional development, there is a risk that government becomes increasingly inefficient, ineffective, and that corruption increases.”

On collaboration between government and academics, the paper says that research “indicates that current university programmes do not fully align with the needs of practitioners responsible for commissioning professional development in the UK public sector”.

The study says the evidence “leads us to conclude that public administration scholars and universities would benefit from a greater understanding of what practice requires, while practitioners would benefit from a greater understanding of what MPA programmes can, and should, offer in terms of workforce development”.

It concludes: “This initial fieldwork has demonstrated a clear appetite for bespoke public sector education and a willingness of public administration researchers and educators to provide this education. Perhaps now is an opportune time for UK practitioners and academics to put into practice the codesign principles they often espouse.”

Expanding on this point, one of the study's authors Dr Ian Elliott, senior lecturer in public administration at the Centre for Public Policy, University of Glasgow, told CSW that practitioners and policymakers often talk about public service delivery being co-designed or co-delivered “but, interestingly, in the space of education of public servants, it hasn't always happened”.

He said the development of the subject benchmark statement along with the establishment of the UK Association for Public Administration and the Leadership College for Government – offers a “really great opportunity to bring these different bodies and these different groups together to actually start co-designing really relevant context-specific education opportunities”.

“There's a lot of potential here for something really positive to happen if there is the political will and the leadership to make it happen,” he added.

 

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