17 July 2019

Developing the civil service’s specialist skills is vital for delivering both Brexit and the next Government’s domestic priorities, argues Benoit Guerin.

Brexit alone is a major challenge for the civil service, but the two men vying to become Prime Minister have also produced a flurry of policy pitches and spending promises. If the civil service is to deliver on the ambitions of either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt, then it is vital that investment in its skills and capabilities continues.

Since 2013, civil service leaders have pushed for greater professionalisation of key government activities from policy making to financial management. This involved creating functions and professions, such as the Government Commercial Function, to ensure that specialist tasks are performed to a consistently high standard. These reforms, while gaining little public attention, are crucial to the effective working of government and the delivery of public services.

Weaknesses in deploying expertise have led to costly failures

For at least 50 years, the civil service has recognised the importance of involving specialists in policy implementation. Yet weaknesses in deploying expertise have resulted in a record peppered by costly failures in delivering major reforms and projects.

These failures come at a significant cost to taxpayers – as was the case when the InterCity West Coast franchise competition was cancelled – and they have an impact on people’s lives. For example, between 2012 and 2015, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Rural Payment Agency adopted an ‘agile’ approach, which civil servants had no previous experience of using, to deliver an IT system for processing EU payments to farmers. A failure to obtain the necessary expertise meant it was unable to successfully deliver the system, resulting in only 38% of farmers receiving funds on time compared to more than 90% the previous year.

Efforts to boost civil service capability are making a difference

However, the civil service's recent reforms to bolster specialist skills are a welcome development, and have helped it to attract, develop and deploy high-calibre people. For example, areas such as human resources and commercial have developed career pathways or frameworks to help staff plan their career in a structured way. Other areas, including finance and communications, have their own Fast Stream schemes for developing a pipeline of talented experts.

There have also been greater efforts to retain expertise. The Project Delivery Function, for example, has taken steps to reduce turnover of senior responsible owners and directors from 18% in June 2013 to 6% in 2017. This is crucial to the successful delivery of programmes such as Universal Credit, which, in 2012–13, went through five senior responsible owners (SROs) in less than a year.

The reforms have also come in handy in emergencies. After the 2018 collapse of Carillion, strong support from the commercial, finance and human resources specialisms helped the Government take a unified – rather than department-by-department – approach. The commercial function helped develop contingency plans to successfully minimise disruption to public services, which the Chief Executive of the Civil Service argued “would simply not have been possible even two or three years ago” without specialisms to shape cross-government strategies.

The civil service must pursue these reforms

These reforms have strengthened the civil service’s ability to manage its skills and expertise, but the challenge is considerable – as was acknowledged by civil service leaders who spoke in a recent series of Institute for Government events. They accept that further work is needed, for example to develop mid-career professionals, particularly in areas like policy making and project delivery.

At the same time, the teams which support reform efforts within each specialism must have a stable source of funding to successfully deliver this approach. They are currently subjected to different funding regimes: some, like human resources, receive core funding from the Cabinet Office, whereas others like policy rely on individual departmental support. To allow for long-term planning, civil service leadership needs to ensure that more stable funding is available through a small number of well-understood funding models.  

The public are unlikely to be aware of many, or any, of these developments. But it is important that these reforms continue so that the civil service can effectively serve future governments, deliver services to the public – and meet the ambitions of the next Prime Minister.

Further information

A summary of the Institute for Government’s series of events on functional leadership is available on our website. The keynote speeches and main points made by Jon Thompson, Mike Driver, Rupert McNeil, Matthew Vickerstaff, and Sir Chris Wormald are also available on our website.