Will 2013 be the year HMG takes skills, including those of the Civil Service, seriously

Politicians have mouthed words about the importance of skills for many decades, often throwing funding at education providers. It is over a decade since the last serious IT training programme: that for 40,000 millennium bugbusters to receive quality controlled, industry standard, hands-on, courses on basic micro-processor maintenance and updating so that they could also check and fix clock and date chips. We have also heard much about the need to improve the professionalism of the public sector and there are enquiries by the Public Administration Select Committee into the future of the Civil Service and the reform of public sector procurement processes. Both are welcome, if overdue, but neither looks at the failure to implement the Fulton report and how the current situation arises naturally from having one of the best educated but least trained public services in the world.

For example, few senior servants have ever received practical training, let alone supervised experience, in the assembly, testing and analysis of evidence to develop or review a policy proposal, let alone to plan or monitor its implementation. An Oxbridge style education, developing barrister like skills in assembling and defending weekly essays or a grounding in the basics of economic, engineering, mathematical or scientific approaches to problem solving, plus the occasional short course, is assumed to be sufficient to enable them to acquire the other skills they need by a process of osmosis .

Hence the vulnerability of Civl Servants, like their political masters, to collective delusions, alias “big ideas”. One example might be the “self evident need for a national patient record available on-line to almost any medical practitioner, which is also secure, reliable and up-to-date.  Another is, of course, the equivalent for some-one claiming to be in need of benefit. And, of course, we have a queue of suppliers and consultants eager to reinforce those delusions, offering PFI deals to anyone who will listen if the Treasury is empty. 

Back in 1973, (when I joined the team to produce a computer development strategy for the “about to be formed” Regional Water Authorities” under a Mintech strategic planning contracts), I was dismayed that the very bright young Assistant Principal who had been assigned to help with inputs from the Department of the Environment appeared unwilling to provide any of the back-up to the policy documents I was expected to work from. In particular I wanted the analyses of what the new Authorities were expected to look like, based on the functions they would be taking over. My father, an Assistant Secretary in another Department told me these were unlikely to exist. He said I should buy time to assemble what I thought they should look like and then ask for comment on what I had been able to produce. Since I had just joined the team (my first role after ICL had sponsored me on the London Business School Master’s Programme) I asked the programme manager if I could spend four weeks “reading my way in”. I was allowed two.

I collected IMTA Municipal Year Books, River Board and Nature Conservancy Accounts etc. etc. and assembled national totals and authority averages to draft a model of an average Regional Water Authority . I then obtained appointments with the Treasurers of a Nature Conservancy, Water Company and a joint Water and Sewerage Board to review what I had done – as a lead in to obtaining their views. They were most helpful because I had tried to do my homework in advance. They also briefed me on how the different authorities rigged their returns so as to determine their positions in the league tables or bid for extra resources. That enable me to adjust accordingly. I then went back to the Department and asked if my analyses tallied with their figures. I was told they looked reasonable. A year later I saw my figures in a ministerial briefing as the authoritative departmental figures.

I have regularly had similar experiences over the subsequent forty years. The refusal to answer questions about business cases nearly always masks ignorance, not muddle,  conflict or conspiracy.  In consequence I am unable to take a departmental “business case” any more seriously than those assembled by most Think Tanks.

That s sad because so many of the best of my peers at University, with whom I struggled to keep up in joint tutorials or late night arguments, went into the Service. More-over its intake is still, by and large, significantly more intelligent and better educated than those who join the City, major law firms, accounting practices or consultancies, let alone those who go into business, industry or politics. But, except perhaps for politics, the latter then invest heavily in training and professional development.  

My criticism of the calling notices for the PASC enquiries is that they contain no questions on the skills and training given to Civil Servants to enable them to do their current roles, let alone to handle the waves of change over recent years or those to come. At the simplest level: how many accounting officers have an accounting qualification of any type (financial or management)?  But it is not just the specialist who lack specialist skills. The generalists need the equivalent of what we learned at London Business School, particularly the basic professional skills necessary to enable us to spot bullshit across every discipline we were likely to face.

The Civl service training programmes may have been deifcient but they now appear to have been demolished with no effective replacement. The theoretical needs analyses of recent years were overtaken by structural change before they were used and the Civil Service Learning framework has led merely to a collapse of delivery with a “gateway” routine that is said make it almost impossible to obtain training when and where needed, unless it happens to be covered by one of the standard on-line modules. That framework is also a tragic comment on the lack of procurement skills of central government. The targetted savings will be achieved by the indefinite postponment of in-house training – presumably leading to further outsourcing to those employing individuals from overseas with impressive credentials which are worth no more than the paper on which they are no longer printed.