Whitehall’s top official admits need to improve civil service technical skills

Simon Case claims government has improved data handling and support for innovation but there is more to do

Credit: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images/CC BY-SA 3.0

Whitehall’s most senior civil servant has agreed with criticisms that the government lacks technical and other specialised skills.

Former Vaccine Taskforce chair Dame Kate Bingham recently raised concerns about government is “driving away innovators”. This, she said, has created a ““devastating” deficit of expertise in STEM disciplines, as well as industry and manufacturing.

In a response that will disappoint many across government, cabinet secretary Simon Case said Bingham was “correct in her assessment” of the capabilities of officials and ministers, which formed part of a stinging opinion piece in The Times.

“The machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia,” she said.  “There is an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism, a culture of groupthink and risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging. Government must be braver. It needs to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset in which people are rewarded for flair and results.”

Case’s endorsement of Bingham’s views on skills in the civil service came in a letter to The Times that saw the cabinet secretary say government needed more people like the biotech venture capitalist, who is married to former financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman.

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“Dame Kate Bingham is correct in her assessment of the lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing across government,” he said. “Her criticism is also one that the civil service has recognised itself. Improving our technical and specialist knowledge is at the heart of implementing our post-pandemic reform plans. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, is working to bring in science and engineering expertise at all levels.”

Case pointed to June’s Declaration on Government Reform as the civil service’s “blueprint for renewing and rewriting who we are and how we work” and said a range of measures were already in progress.

“We are overhauling our training schemes to boost specialist skills for all civil servants; improving leadership programmes to support greater innovation and creativity; encouraging our people to pick up experience on private sector secondments, and bringing in more outside expertise from business, industry and academia – more Dame Kates,” he said.

Case added that during the pandemic response, the civil service had “significantly improved” its data handling and was continuing work to bring better evidence into policy and delivery discussions at the heart of government.

“As a passionate advocate for the civil service and wider public service I recognise the many achievements and dedication of my colleagues,” he said.

“Civil service leaders and ministers alike are determined to address the frustrations that hold us back from accomplishing more, so we can better serve people in all parts of the UK.”

In a speech at Newcastle University last month, Case said that the civil service risked losing public trust if it did not modernise to more closely match peoples’ expectations.

And in a June memo to civil servants, the cab sec set out his ambitious to build a “more skilled, innovative and ambitious organisation” with the “best people leading and working in government, and equipping them with the skills, training and knowledge they deserve”.

In her opinion piece on Tuesday, Bingham acknowledged that the civil service was taking measures to recruit more scientists as civil servants. However, she said those measures were “not nearly enough”.


Sam Trendall

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