The extent of the government’s skills gap was detailed in the findings of a report released by the influential Public Accounts Committee late last week, which also questioned the leadership capabilities of MPs and permanent secretaries in being able to deliver on some of Whitehall’s most important (and expensive) projects.
The warning comes as departments are collectively working on close to 150 major projects across government and follows years of failings and costly cock-ups. The government has a reputation for having big ambitions for systems that aim to change citizen behaviour in order to deliver cost savings, but often falls short and results in huge losses to the taxpayer.
Some examples include the National Programme for IT and more recently Universal Credit. These failings cost the taxpayer billions of pounds in unnecessary losses and often come down to poor skills capability, both in terms of technical delivery and contract management.
The Public Accounts Committee also has noted its concern about the merger of the Major Projects Authority and Infrastructure UK (to create ‘The Authority’), stating that the two bodies had two differing priorities in the past, which could lead to less accountability across government.
Criticisms have also been given on the newly created The Authority’s collection of data to to provide a transparent, open and honest dialogue about project performance.
The skills problem
As I’ve noted previously, the skills problem in Whitehall is something that is pressing but isn’t necessarily getting the attention it deserves. The current agenda is one which requires the in-sourcing of some advanced digital and commercial skills, following years of outsourcing huge swathes of capability, and comes at a time when departments are undergoing extensive cost-cutting exercises.
Combine this with the fact that becoming a civil servant can result in being dragged through the mud (publicly) when things go wrong, and the ability for the private sector to pay much higher wages, it creates an interesting skills problem for government.
The Public Accounts Committee has described the skills shortages in the Civil Service as “serious” and has said:
The Major Projects Portfolio (the Portfolio) includes a large number of transformation projects, such as the Courts Reform or Universal Credit projects. These projects are intended to fundamentally change how a process operates, and are often more difficult to deliver than traditional infrastructure projects.
They also require commercial and digital technology skills which are areas where the Civil Service faces particular shortages. The Civil Service is acquiring these skills by hiring externally but this presents challenges such as agreeing appropriate remuneration levels. The Authority also told us it was struggling to retain project directors across the Portfolio.
This is worrying. It recommends that the Cabinet Office set out specifically how the ongoing Civil Service reform process will accommodate the need to hire and retain people with the specialist skills to deliver projects.
It notes that the scale of the problem is significant:
The Cabinet Office explained that the increasing proportion of transformation projects in the Portfolio increases the need for commercial and digital technology skills. It warned that these were two areas where it had a critical skills shortage across the civil service.
It said that it would have to recruit hundreds of people in the commercial area, and “probably thousands” in the technical area. It said that it was having to bring those people in from outside of the Civil Service and noted that this caused a series of problems such as issues around remuneration policy.
And it brought into question the leadership capabilities of MPs and permanent secretaries, stating:
When Members first enter Parliament they may often do so without experience in running large organisations or delivering major projects. When such Members become ministers there is a danger that they will fail to understand project management processes and may attempt to override good practice. They could push for rapid project progress at points where a pause would be more sensible or make short-term political decisions without understanding the impact they will have on projects.
Civil servants on the path to becoming permanent secretaries, and even some existing permanent secretaries may also lack experience in delivering major projects. The Cabinet Office agreed with us that it would be desirable for permanent secretaries to have a better blend of skill sets, which would differ for different departments because each department was different
The Major Projects Authority, which was responsible for providing independent assurance over government projects, and Infrastructure UK, which promoted the development of infrastructure, merged at the end of 2015 to created the newly formed ‘The Authority’.
The Public Accounts Committee states in its report that it recognises the legacy that the new organisationhas inherited, where a number of projects have been poorly planned and implemented. In fact it is now charged with improving the delivery of 34% of all major projects which have been marked as ‘red’ or ‘amber-red’, meaning that successful delivery is either unachievable or in doubt unless action is taken.
In other words, it has an enormous task on its hands.
That being said, the report also outlines how the newly formed Authority may have conflicting priorities given its make-up. This is something that has been denied by the organisation. Nonetheless, the Public Accounts Committee found:
Against this background, it is still critical that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority acts as an independent assurance agency, but this role may be at risk. Infrastructure UK was a body which focused on promoting infrastructure projects, and it is merging with the Major Project Authority whose role was to provide independent assurance and challenge to such projects. We put it to the Authority that it would not usually be considered wise to merge a delivery organisation with the body responsible for providing independent scrutiny of delivery. The Authority told us that it would continue to organise project reviews using its independent reviewers, and said it did not believe that its role as a body providing independent assurance over projects would be compromised.
The Authority told us that, following the merger, it would be able to increase the level of support and intervention that it provided to projects.8 It said that the merger would improve its expertise, for example in the area of costs and cost estimating for large infrastructure projects, and that this would improve the quality of the recommendations which it made.
It expected the merger to give the Authority more teeth in its assurance role by working more effectively with the Treasury to set conditions for projects to get financial approval, and said it would think about how to evidence that the merger had produced better outcomes. It wanted to use the merger as an opportunity to strengthen a number of other areas but had not identified them all.
The skills problem in government needs to be addressed. And it’s a big problem to address. That being said, government organisations (e.g. DVLA) have managed to insource skills and offer opportunities that are unique and can help someone’s career.
Equally, I’m aware that the Cabinet Office is mulling over how it can make insourcing skills from the private sector more flexible. And by this, I mean allowing private sector employees to come on to work in the civil service on a temporary basis, to work on interesting projects, and then go back to work in the private sector.
If this isn’t addressed, those major projects will keep failing.