Civil service leaders must tackle the “entrenched perception” that Whitehall policy roles are the best way to reach senior posts if a drive to professionalise key government activities is to be successful, a review has found.
Analysing efforts since 2013 to create cross-government specialisms in areas like commercial, digital, finance and HR, the Institute for Government said enabling people working in these areas to reach top leadership positions in the civil service was key to modernising Whitehall.
In particular, the review stated that the leaders of each profession need to ensure that civil servants gain greater access to training and mentoring on how to operate within a political environment and influence policy. This will help specialists progress to senior management positions within departments and make a career in specialisms outside policy, which also include communications, legal and project delivery roles, more attractive.
According to the IfG, moves to boost the functions since the 2013 Civil Service Capabilities Plan have led to a more joined-up approach to the way that functions are organised and work across departments.
Under the changes, cross-government heads for each profession have been appointed, such as chief commercial officer Gareth Rhys Williams, executive director for government communications Alex Aiken and chief people officer Rupert McNeil.
Each profession chief is then responsible for bringing together the departmental leaders in each field to develop improvement plans for their specialism, such talent management initiatives and backing for relevant professional standards.
This emerging model has cut through long-standing debates about centralisation in Whitehall, the IfG said, as it retains permanent secretaries’ responsibility for departmental performance while specialist leaders ensure departments have access to, and properly utilise, the skills that they need.
The think tank concluded that creating the professions has delivered improvements in talent management across the civil service, with each strand more able to attract and retain high-calibre people.
For example, each specialism has launched its own fast-track recruitment scheme, while the joined up planning has allowed for agreed skills frameworks and career pathway plans, opening up new training opportunities.
But report author and IfG deputy director Julian McCrae highlighted a number of obstacles that civil service leaders have to address.
In particular, the central leadership for each profession must ensure that career pathways are fully integrated into departmental recruitment and performance management processes, and make it clear that these roles can get civil servants into top posts.
Although policy roles remain the most common route to permanent secretary appointments, the IfG noted some progress has been made in widening this pool, with specialists appointed including Jon Thompson (finance) at HMRC, Richard Heaton (legal) at the Ministry of Justice, and John Manzoni (project delivery) at the Cabinet Office getting perm sec posts in recent years.
But more can be done to convince civil servants who are developing their career plans that they can get to the top through these routes.
“Cross-departmental leadership groups need to ensure that specialists have a greater level of understanding of how Whitehall works, in order to progress to senior management positions within departments,” the report stated. “If specialists are to achieve this, they need sufficient understanding of how to influence policymaking and operate within a political environment.”
The report found the development of the specialisms are at different levels of maturity. Although there are similarities in the structures being developed, some have been in place for much longer than others.
Frequent leadership changes at the helm of some professions, such as the project management, digital and finance areas, have also undermined efforts to create a unified function, the review added.
For example, there have been five leaders of the project management profession since 2011, according to the report: David Pitchford, Norma Wood (interim), John Manzoni, Dave Blackall (interim) and now Tony Meggs. There have also been three changes of leader for the digital profession, which has been held by the head of the Government Digital Service since 2011: Mike Bracken, Stephen Foreshew-Cain and now Kevin Cunnington – since 2011.
The finance function has had four leaders in the same period - Jon Thompson, Richard Douglas, Julian Kelly and now Mike Driver. The report highlighted that the leadership pressures on this post are particularly acute as they are expected to operate as a first among equals, in that he or she supposedly oversees exact counterparts in other departments.
By contrast, the policy profession has had just two heads since 2009 - Robert Devereux and, from 2012, Chris Wormald.
This means that the leadership of some specialisms is better placed than others to accelerate and embed reforms, with more developed leadership groups and better data on what different departments need.
Some functions also face both insufficient resources with only small teams driving the profession wide reforms, or uncertainty about their funding from year to year.
In order to ensure progress is made constantly across the range of functions, the IfG called for the separate reform and improvement plans in each area to be brought together by civil service chief executive John Manzoni to share updates on progress. More stable funding should also be introduced to allow the functions to plan ahead in areas like recruitment and talent management.
McCrae highlighted that the government cannot afford mistakes on important reforms such as Brexit, and that increasing professionalisation of the civil service was key to avoiding repeats of failings such as IT write-offs in the Universal Credit, the flawed InterCity West Coast franchise competition that led to the award being cancelled, or the inability to spot widespread overbilling by suppliers of electronic offender monitoring tags.
“There are huge pressures on the public sector, which will only increase as the UK leaves the European Union,” he said.
“Our report highlights a number of key obstacles facing all specialisms which civil service leaders have to address. Senior decision makers in government departments need to understand, demand and make better use of the professional support and services offered by specialists.”