The British civil service, those employed by the public sector to carry out the work of government, has long faced scrutiny about its skills capability. Under the leadership of various ministers, prime ministers and chief executives, the civil service has undergone numerous reforms - with skills often being the central focus.
The most recent endeavour started back in 2013 when leaders in the Cabinet Office saw the need to introduce new specialist skills and created 10 government ‘Functions' - including digital and data - to build up capability internally and not rely so much on external consultants to carry out work.
And when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019, he and his cabinet quickly placed civil service reform as a top priority. Special advisor Dominic Cummings began this work when he controversially called for ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills' to apply, but since his departure from office, the government has taken a more traditional approach.
So, what is needed to ensure the civil service has the skills it needs to quickly execute on the work of government? This was a critical question in the wake of Brexit, but is even more pertinent now that the UK is facing the fallout from COVID-19. The role of public services has never been more critical and the civil service needs to understand how it can get the right skills in place.
Influential think tank Institute for Government has this week released a report that outlines some priorities for this exact task - arguing that better data on skills is urgently needed. It rightly notes that actually the civil service has a lot of the skills it needs, but often has a challenge in identifying them and putting them to good use.
For example, it highlights that there are more than 10,000 people working in the Digital, Data and Technology Profession and there are about 12,000 engineers. Accessing these skills effectively should be a priority.
On some of the other challenges, the report states:
The government is right to make reform a priority. Capability gaps cost time and money, officials have recognised. Spending on consultants or temporary staff had reduced after the Cabinet Office introduced controls in 2010, but tripled between 2012/13 and 2017/18. The demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in spending increasing still further.
Using temporary staff can end up costing the government twice as much as using civil servants, and ministers agree that the civil service is "too reliant on consultants". Bringing in consultants can be useful where the government doesn't need to have highly specialist skills in-house, or where capability is needed quickly. But consultants doing jobs that civil servants can do themselves over extended periods is not a good use of public money - and "infantilises" government officials.
The civil service faces specific problems including constraints on pay, the fragmented nature of government (where conducting certain tasks, like managing contracts or creating digital services, can lead to tensions with government departments). It has also spent years discussing the right balance between specialists and generalists.
If it can be agreed that the civil service would benefit from reform and that a new approach to building skills is needed, Institute for Government has some ideas and lays out the following recommendations for how it thinks skills can be improved. These are pretty clear and build a nice framework for those working in government thinking about this challenge.
A new strategy - the report states that without a clear cross-civil service strategic plan, priorities will be ad hoc and skills development will remain patchy. To be able to advise on and implement future government policy, the civil service needs to understand what skills it will require long-term - this will likely be driven in a large part by technological developments, which will change the nature of the workforce.
More multi-disciplinary teams - reform will be dependent on being able to create, deploy and manage effective teams that more formally bring together the expertise and skills of different professions. The report argues that these groups could be made up of people with different and complementary skill sets from inside and outside the civil service.
Better data urgently needed - the civil service should urgently commit to collecting more information on skills and the senior leadership should set up a programme of systematic data collection. This data will be used most often at the level of individual departments to math skilled resources to priority projects and to identify where there are gaps in capability.
Managers need to be more accountable - team development should be the responsibility of managers, who should be held directly accountable. They should set rigorous development goals with the people they manage each year and report back on how far they have been met.
Personal development - self-development should be a fundamental part of every civil servant's job and funding should not generally be a barrier to taking up relevant opportunities to learn. In addition, a core group of training courses should be developed for skills that are important across the civil service, particularly for improving writing, numeracy, collaborating within and across teams, and core digital ability.
Development of skills from the wider public sector - effort should be made to bring senior police, health, central and local government public servants together to develop their leadership through the programmes provided by the National Leadership Centre. The government should also facilitate more exchange between different parts of the public sector by setting up formal routes for exchanges, secondments and shadowing.
Promoting to the private sector - ethical safeguards should be in place, but the report argues that encouraging technically skilled people to spend time in the civil service and demonstrating how that will contribute to a fulfilling career should be a recruitment objective. Civil service leaders should emphasize the opportunities that are only available to those working for government. And the civil service should ensure that its pay and pension arrangements are not an obstacle to moving in and out of government service, particularly for those with skills commanding high salaries outside the public sector.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, skills in the civil service is always front of mind and is often too easily bashed by those with a platform. There is plenty of good people working in the civil service and lots of exciting work being carried out. But there does need to be a strong framework for how to improve on this - there is always room for improvement. I think the recommendations from Institute for Government are entirely sensible on this occasion.