Senior civil service roles should require test of digital skills, commission recommends

Tech expertise should be part of a package of skills required to ascend to government’s upper ranks, report urges

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Promotion to the senior ranks of the senior civil service should be contingent on passing a test of digital skills, a group of political and Whitehall experts has said.

A policy paper from the Commission for Smarter Government this week recommends that demonstrable tech expertise should from part of a package of core skills requirements for entering the SCS, alongside: numeracy and data management; financial management; project, programme and portfolio management; and “substantial” operational delivery experience outside the civil service.

Existing senior officials should also be expected to meet this “SCS standard” within two years, the report said.

Skills could also be boosted by the creation of a “crown headhunter” role, which should be appointed to “turbocharge the hiring of external talent”, according to the commission.

“Make a reality of the default assumption that all roles should be open to outside recruitment by dismantling current process and cultural barriers to external hiring,” the paper said. 

And departmental permanent secretaries should be replaced by chief executives “with a clear focus on strategy, execution and organisational effectiveness”, it said.

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The report argues that “reform needs to encompass the way all the players in government work, ministers, political appointees and public servants, and make their experience of working more positive and fulfilling”.

It therefore calls for an MBA-style executive training programme, “equivalent to the leading business school offers”, to train not only civil servants but also other public sector leaders and politicians.

“Narratives about ‘Whitehall wars’ or ‘hard rain’ have rightly been left behind, not least because of the experience of Covid, with a shared realisation that there are failings across our system of government that we need to fix together,” the report said.

The report also argued that pay should be one of the main levers to increase performance in the civil service.

“Current pay frameworks can be a constraint in hiring or retaining exceptional people, especially in roles requiring specialist skills, such as project management or digital. The gap between civil service pay and the private sector is widening, and the salaries of civil servants are also considerably lower than their equivalents in the rest of the public sector,” it said.

The commission concluded that ending this disparity “may be most straightforwardly achieved by reducing the number of civil servants overall”, adding:  “It is desirable in any case to improve the ‘talent density’ – the concentration of high-performing staff – in the civil service”.

Commission chair Lord Nick Herbert said the Covid pandemic had not only deepened the challenges facing the UK, but “revealed that our system of public administration urgently needs a fundamental overhaul”.

“As politicians begin to focus on rebuilding, it is crucial that they do not pass over the opportunity and the necessity to reform the machinery of government,” he said.

The report notes that the “very scale of the task facing government might encourage leaders to put the intricacies of systemic reform aside”, this would be “precisely the wrong response”.

“It is because the challenges are so great, and the world in which government is operating is changing so fast, that government must reform itself, or fail.” 

According to the commission, any proposals for reform must be able to pass the following test: “Does it make government work better for the people?” to ensure different parts of government work together effectively, and that reforms work for all people.

“That means strong attention to equality and diversity, making it a matter of serious substance, not gestures or fashion. It means being honest about the ways services too often let down the very people in our society who most need them.”


Sam Trendall

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