13 April 2015

The Civil Service is in the process of establishing a new Executive Master's of Public Policy (EMPP) in partnership with LSE as its next stage in professionalising policy. What will it need to be like to make a difference?

The Civil Service has always rather looked down on the idea that formal qualifications can help you do the job as policy maker better. True, increasing numbers reach the top entering as professional economists. And the current government, although putting the old National School for Government onto the quango bonfire has set up both the ‘Commissioning Academy’ (in reality a Cabinet Office training programme for staff) and the Major Project Leadership Academy – a rather more formal partnership with the Said Business School in Oxford and Deloitte. There have also been individual departmental initiatives – like the Department of Health’s health policy master’s degree at Imperial College London. But until recently the view has been widespread that policy making per se is picked up on the job and does not require specialist skills or training. As such it has struggled with being badged as a profession on a par with those that do have recognised training and accreditation.

The proposed master’s course, which the policy profession is developing jointly with the LSE is designed to address that – and offer an avowedly elite qualification to those expected to be the official policy leaders of the future. This is something the old National School for Government, or its predecessor, never achieved.

So far we only have the bare bones of the offer from the LSE. There is a big focus on rigorous policy analysis skills. That is important. To be effective policy makers civil servants need to be skilled at data analysis, acquisition and use of evidence and structured problem solving. These were areas that policy civil servants themselves thought were weak when they were asked as part of a survey done for the policy profession. But these need to be supplemented with the new techniques of policy making: design thinking, on ethnography or social psychology – and ways of engaging users, providers and the wider public.

That is not all policy making civil servants need. The course needs to prepare policy makers for the task of turning policy ideas into effective action on the ground – and the policy profession now sees itself as occupying the position of ‘ringmaster’ able to bring together and synthesise the inputs from a wide range of disciplines. Our work on implementation and public service markets suggests that policy civil servants need to be able to understand organisational design and incentives, risk management and be capable of overseeing writing complicated contracts, as well as having a good grasp of budgeting. And they need to be able to do all that in ever more complex environments.

But policy professionals also need to understand the challenge of business as usual. Our research has suggested that the dominance of policy as the route to the top of the Civil Service tree has meant, for example, a lack of interest in performance management of the day-to-day business of departments – with little interest in management information. So one of the disciplines the EMPP should instil is how to demand and apply performance data to drive efficiency and better value though the system. That in turn will help officials know when the answer is a policy change – or just using existing machinery and levers more effectively.

If there is space it would be good if the EMPP could go beyond skills to knowledge. The lack of deep understanding by civil servants of the subject areas of their departments has been a repeated area of concern to ministers. The DH qualification was specifically focused on health policy to try to fill that gap. LSE can offer a lot of people with knowledge of relevant policy areas. It would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to tap into that expertise.

The Civil Service has, until recently, generally been sceptical about the value of qualifications. Two things will be needed if the new EMPP is to become a permanent part of the landscape.

First, those who benefit from the qualification will need to return from their LSE experience visibly better able to perform their roles. This means that departments need a clear view of how they are going to use graduates from the programme – so it is more than just an academic exercise divorced from the day to day business.

Second, since the numbers involved will always be small, the newly qualified policy elite will need to be able to share their learning and raise the standard of policy making and management across their departments. They need to be given the space – and the responsibility to do that.

Then we will really see not just the benefit of some professional policy makers – but more professional policy across the Civil Service.

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