What training does the civil service need?

Summary

Exploring issues around the restructuring of training and development in the civil service.

This is an issue I jumped up and down about on a regular basis when I was in the civil service. Training was very much a hit and miss thing. For those of you inside the civil service, I recommend you ask your corporate services team/division/directorate some figures on training budget vs actual spend and find out what percentage of the training budget allocated to different teams and divisions was actually spent. The numbers may surprise you.

The Fast Stream – from four to two years

Some of you may be aware that I am a former Civil Service Fast Streamer. Some of you may also be aware that I came out against Francis Maude’s plans to reduce the Fast Stream from four to two years. Well…he’s ignored that advice and gone ahead with the reduction anyway. But that’s his prerogative and in anycase, the reforms happening to the Fast Stream are going to turn it into a different creature from the one that I was in the tummy of. As an aside, one of the differences between “politics” and public policy (in my book) is that with the former, you can continue to oppose the moves and threaten to overturn them should your party win power. (Think Andy Burnham with the Health and Social Care Bill or Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps with Home Information Packs). With public policy people, once the decision has been taken to proceed with a given policy, the game then changes to “how can we make this work as best as possible for as many people as possible?” That’s what I’m going to look at here

What will this new Fast Stream look like?

Reading the Civil Service World article shows Cabinet Office are taking the issue of improving the Fast Stream seriously. There were significant shortcomings of the programme during my time on it – to the extent that it was less of a graduate programme and more a case of “You have 20 days of funded training where you pick your courses from this National School of Government brochure, and then you get moved around once every 6 months to a year”. There were also the continued “turf wars” between departments and Cabinet Office that the article above describes. So in one regard it’s good that Maude seems to have gotten a grip on a programme that, for too many people (myself included) did not deliver.

One of the interesting things to note is that Maude seems to have both a firm idea of what he thinks the Fast Stream should be delivering, and has had the time to develop and hopefully deliver it. The regular ministerial reshuffles under Blair and Brown meant that hardly anyone was ever in one place long enough to develop and deliver their own ideas. They were always moved on far too quickly, causing huge instability.

I still remain concerned that the shortness of some of the placements may not be long enough for people to gain sufficient depth of experience. However, the stronger line from the centre regarding movements of fast streamers and their management means that it should be easier to manage expectations in terms of how long someone is there for. The challenge for those managing the system is making it work: Will they go for say fixed-term movements at a given time of the year? Will it be more flexible – in which case how will the inevitable gaps be filled? It won’t be fun for managers losing a fast streamer only to find it’s another few months before a replacement is appointed.

The mentoring is particularly welcome – some of you will be familiar with my regular calls for increased mentoring across the piece.. The system of mentoring was too haphazard in my experience and I’m glad that there’s a much firmer steer to get senior civil servants to take the role of mentors. The problem as always will be on delivery: Making busy senior civil servants taking on this extra responsibility – and ensuring that there are enough of them to cover all of the fast streamers.

Training

I don’t really know how to feel about the closure of the National School of Government. In principle it was lovely. In reality, my experiences of the courses were mixed. There were some courses which were absolutely buzzing – on one of these I met the brilliant Jon Worth who I was later to get to know via Twitter, having kept tabs on his blog in the years prior to that. Jon delivered the units on the European Union for the then Parliament Government and the Civil Service course on what was the most enjoyable course I went on with NSG. But there were others that were absolutely horrible and should never have been allowed anywhere near the NSG.

The thing that always struck me about Sunningdale (where one half of the school was located, the other just by Victoria Station in London) was that it seemed stuck out in the middle of nowhere yet underneath Heathrow’s flightpath at the same time. I couldn’t help but feel that the NSG should have been attached as a school or an institute to somewhere like University College London (who have it’s highly regarded Constitution Unit). At least that way rather than carting off civil servants to some isolated spot, have them on a buzzing building/campus that is open to all civil and public servants – one that can host talks and events and one that’s easy for people to get to.

As part of the overhaul of training, Cabinet Office has gone cap in hand to…Capita. As you may be aware, I have issues with outsourcing in general but what’s done is done. The one good thing to come from this is there will hopefully be wider scope from a greater number of providers, rather than all of the money going to the same usual suspects. One course a couple of us persuaded our budget holders to pay for us to go on was the Managing Public Services course by Northumbria University. Although it has a strong local government slant, civil servants may wish to have a look at it because it’s an education in itself spending day-release sessions with people who have strong experience of frontline service delivery.

During my time in the civil service I also tried to push (through my trade unions) for departments to link up with further and higher education colleges that are offering both long and short courses that could be useful to public servants. One of the things I noticed with many of them was that their courses appeared to be far better value for money than the corporate courses. In terms of wider benefits, the money from the public purse it’s that little extra help for cash-strapped colleges while at the same time opening the doors of other courses to people who may not otherwise know they exist. CityLit in Holborn and Birkbeck just up the road are examples of places where people can do their “work” courses, then in their own time and at own expense can stick around for whichever evening class suits their interest.

Specialisation

One of the things I found to be incredibly useful was having specialists crossing over into generalist roles. In my final team in the civil service we had a useful blend of people with specialist skills combined with generalists in the same team. The never-ending debate that seems to happen in the civil service is whether those with a specialist function should be distributed across teams, or held together as one unit. Personally I think that’s the wrong question to answer. Many economists, statisticians and lawyers I met in the civil service said how they would have loved the opportunity to be a generalists.

There will always need to be specialist functions within the civil service, but having the mindset that people can spend some time outside of specialist functions I think will deepen the understanding specialists have of what generalists have to put up with, and vice versa.

Fast stream vs non-fast stream

As I’ve mentioned in The Civil Service Fast Stream not everyone is on side with the concept of a fast stream. I met and worked with a number of people – including senior civil servants who were against it in principle. One of the first budgets to go during downsizing of this scale is training and development budgets. This puts into sharp focus the benefits fast streamers have over the rest of the civil service. In all of the changes that are being put forward, I hope that non-fast streamers are not forgotten. A couple of departments made a strong push for apprenticeships – which for me worked brilliantly. For the handful that I worked with they were fun to work with and gave a level of challenge that you just wouldn’t get from someone in senior management or just out of an elite university.

One of the big opportunities there is for departments is developing and/or publicising internal long term development programmes leading to accredited qualifications – irrespective of the role someone is currently in. One of the benefits that is often underestimated or dismissed by managers across the grades is the “soft” benefits of courses beyond the immediate area of work an employee is in. It would be nice to see employers taking a more positive view of training and education – and the importance of staff development rather than seeing the training budget as the first one ripe for the chop.

2 thoughts on “What training does the civil service need?

  1. Interesting. NICS jumped onto UKCS Fast Stream scheme last year, inviting 5 lucky people to have their career managed from SO to G7 within 5 years, with mentoring provided by an SCS.

    Bit of a kick in the teeth to us SO Graduates who were lured in with career management promises in previous years, but ended up at the coalface like everyone else.

    Not that I’m complaining mind, good luck to the poor buggers…😉

  2. Picking up on one part of this, I have to admit, as an outsider (and an engineer working in a very narrow specialisation), to major concerns that the quality of work coming out of the Civil Service is seriously diluted by the use of generalists without adequate subject area knowledge. In my other role as a disability rights activist I dissected a piece of DWP disability research last year (see http://wheresthebenefit.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/conclude-then-survey-dwp-at-their.html) and the standard of knowledge of disability, and the way that disability is perceived, was appallingly bad, buying into the worst stereotyping of disability (admittedly this seems to be near universal at DWP). The document noted that the HSO responsible had moved on to work in the Departent of Energy and Climate Change, so I guess I’m safe in marking her down as a generalist. If a first year undergraduate had produced a survey plan that bad I would have expected them to get a fail grade, but this generalist’s work is now supporting government policy….

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