23 June 2014

The Cabinet Office recently published the first ‘annual refresh’ of its Capabilities Plan. While the update gives a clearer sense of direction, it also begins to raise longer term questions about driving up capability in the Civil Service.

The stocktake reflects on the progress that has been made to build up the four priority areas identified last year:

  • commercial skills and behaviours
  • project and programme delivery
  • digital design and service delivery
  • leading and managing change.

It is evident from the ‘refresh’ that progress has been made in most of the areas identified last year. Sir Bob Kerslake has spoken approvingly of the 280,000 civil servants who have assessed themselves against the competency framework and new e-learning tools have been used by 50,000 officials to improve their digital skills. But these transactional figures underplay the more significant changes that are going on.

There is no escaping the fact that a more capable Whitehall depends on improvements being made within departments, where the bulk of government work is carried out. The updated capabilities plan recognises this, but a year on from its original statement also seeks to be clearer and more confident in setting out how investment in the corporate centre and in cross-Civil Service ‘professions’ are meant to support and accelerate departmental gains.

Interactions between professions, departments and the corporate centre

An emerging model – taken from the Capabilities Plan 2014 Annual Refresh

Nonetheless, as our past research on Civil Service capabilities shows, building up expertise in the centre and pushing departments to adopt shared professional standards are not new reform tactics. Departments have too often seen these service-wide actions as an irrelevance or a distraction from their own perceived needs. A year in, are there signs that departments have bought-in to a corporate agenda on capabilities?

The corporate centre

Central efforts so far have been deliberately targeted on areas where departments are weakest, building up the supply of expertise that they can tap into. For example, the Government Digital Service (GDS) now has both a ‘recruitment hub’ for sourcing specialists from outside the Civil Service and digital and technology ‘benches’ to deploy staff to fill short-term needs. Similarly, the Major Projects Authority (MPA) has been expanding its network of project leaders, including those accredited by its new leadership academy, and is seeking to use this to encourage learning across departments. Also, the newly established Crown Commercial Service has extended its use of Crown Representatives to support teams in departments with complex negotiations and contract management. So far, actions like these at the centre seem to have met latent demand in departments, with only limited friction over jurisdiction.

The professions

After tentative statements in the original capabilities plan, the annual refresh gives the Civil Service ‘professions’ a greater sense of direction. It is now expected that they will provide a focal point for cross-service coordination on professional standards, training and talent management. This is captured in a single best practice framework for professions against which each profession has assessed their ‘maturity’. In the case of the two largest professions, this has already triggered further consideration of their professional identities, with both the Operational Delivery Profession’s own Capability Plan and the Policy Profession’s report, Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policy Making, published in the last year.

Previous attempts to embed professions, such as the Professional Skills for Government agenda in the mid-2000s, were bedevilled by a perception of micromanagement by the centre. So far, the push since 2013 has avoided this. But the onus remains on Heads of Profession (most of whom are themselves senior officials in departments) to make the case for the long-run benefits of increased interdependency. Improving the infrastructure for the professions will help, but department leaders are a long way from recognising their people as part of a pooled resource across a unified Civil Service.

The departments

Like any reform in government, the drive to improve capabilities lives or dies by the buy-in it can achieve with departments. After a year of the capabilities plan, there is reason to believe that developing the professions model and building specialist capacity at the centre have so far delivered benefits that departments recognise and value.

But as the agenda moves forward by increments, this is a good time for Civil Service leaders to start thinking about where the long-run demand for a more capable Whitehall will come from. In the priority areas from the capability plan we have seen that a focus on skills can be catalysed by making explicit the expectations placed on departments about their outcomes. The MPA's RAG ratings of departmental major projects, for instance, help to focus minds on what capability is needed to deliver some huge commitments. Similarly, the GDS is tasked with judging growing numbers of services against a new Digital Service Standard, leaving less room for ambiguity in whether those delivering them are up to the task.

Ultimately, a capability is defined as the capability to do something. Applying clear cross-government standards for certain types of outcomes and greater transparency on performance could help to make so-called ‘capability gaps’ more real to departments. Deciding what those standards should be could itself be a joint enterprise between departments, professions and the corporate centre.

Comments

I thought of the same stakeholders in outlining a model for change on website given. Can the experts in delivery gain promotion, yet? Does measuring support appointments reform? Seem to be increasing calls for it.