If there’s one civil service topic that unites top officials and ministers, it’s the need for better and more specialised skills in government. It’s a powerful theme in the Civil Service Reform Plan; it was the single strongest message from the 24 top officials who contributed to last year’s Permanent Secretaries’ Round-Up; and weaknesses in skills have been blamed in a hundred sad project post mortems.
In this context, the survey findings underpinning our Special Report on training make worrying reading. When we asked in 2010 whether training had improved over the previous three years, most people were positive; now, the same question elicits an overwhelmingly negative response. Senior civil servants, once the most optimistic, are now amongst the most downbeat. Growing numbers are frustrated by an inability to access training – and the picture is darkest within some of the professions, whose training lies at the heart of civil service capabilities.
Civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake is right to point to improvements since the launch of Civil Service Learning (CSL): staff do see the last year as marginally less poor than the whole three-year stretch. And it’s fair to highlight the difficulties of installing a new cross-civil service training system as an important factor behind officials’ very variable experiences since March 2012. It is telling that the professions whose members have found it hardest to get training are those undergoing the most change.
There is no room at all here for complacency. The Cabinet Office’s trainee feedback data can’t capture – as our survey does – the workforce’s dark views of training because it only gathers the views of those who have attended courses: it will be a huge job to turn around civil servants’ current negativity. Yet there are glimpses of hope in our findings. While officials were wary of the CSL reforms, their experiences of it in action suggest the imperfect introduction of a workable structure rather than the arrival of a fundamentally broken system. CSL’s bones could – must – provide a frame around which civil servants can build the skills muscles required to perform the heavy lifting demanded by coalition policies.
So perm secs must move mountains to get staff using CSL, and fiercely defend training budgets against the pressures created by the chancellor’s new raid on admin spending. Profession chiefs must focus on strengthening learning, pushing specialist training through CSL’s approval process. Ministers must, in appraising perm secs, prioritise staff development alongside policy delivery – for the two are inextricably linked. And the Cabinet Office must take a clear-eyed look at CSL, ensuring its response to awkward data is not an instinctive defensiveness but a determination to iron out the problems weakening its reforms.
Given all that, there’s every chance that a 2016 survey of training in the civil service will find that officials’ optimism has been restored. Without it, ministers and perm secs are likely to remain equally frustrated at the civil service’s continued problems in delivering on the government’s ambitions.