Patchy data means government ‘does not know what skills gaps it has and where’

Civil service requires better information to help address need for technical expertise 

Credit: Arek Socha/Pixabay

Government’s “inadequate data” means the civil service “does not know exactly what skills it has or where gaps exist”, researchers have warned.

The report, Future-ready public services – which is published by Henley Business School and draws on previous reports by the Institute for Government, Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office, as well as the school’s own research – cites the need for greater focus on learning and management to help develop capacity and resilience. 

The study highlights how, according to the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, a lack of specialist skills in areas from digital to finance has contributed to delays, budget overruns or policy and operational failures, such as HS2.

A lack of specialist skills has affected the efficiency and effectiveness of government projects and undermined confidence, the report adds.

The report says the civil service should also learn from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic that it needs to be able to reshape itself rapidly to deal with unexpected or unplanned events.

However, a lack of data means that rapidly assembling teams is harder than it should be, and recruitment processes are too slow to respond, the report adds.

As well as poor data, uncompetitive pay compared to the private sector is another key issue affecting recruitment and retention, the report says. This is particularly a problem for people with commercially valuable skills, according to Henley Business School.

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Because the public sector has very limited room to match salaries from other employers, it will need to consider how best to make these job roles more attractive to candidates, the report says.

Recommendations include making managers directly responsible for their teams’ development.

It highlights the need for the civil service to “continue to adapt to be able to shape the future rather than just react to it” in a world “that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, and chaotic”.

The report points to Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent merry-go-round of prime ministers in the UK as examples of the constantly changing landscape it says a modern civil service must be prepared for.

The report says managers should be tasked with setting rigorous development goals for individuals and then reporting back on the extent to which the targets have been met.

To achieve this, formal training must shift from being seen as an optional extra to a fundamental part of a civil servant’s job and performance, the report adds.

Between 2020 and 2024, training will make up just 2-3% of salary costs, which is “well below the private sector”. Training also tends to focus on people considered to have high potential and those at senior level and new starters, such as in the currently suspended Fast Stream, the report adds. 

Dr Sue Binks, a transformational learning expert at Henley Business School, said:  “Transformational learning is as much a mindset shift as a skillset one. We need to support senior civil servants to develop the mental complexity to match their organisation’s complexity; we need to help them make sense of increasingly ambiguous data, as well as build the emotional intelligence to recognise often subconscious patterns of behaviour both in themselves and others that can prevent change.”

The government last year launched a new Curriculum and Campus for Government Skills, to deliver on a promise by then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to create a “properly resourced campus for training people in government” and boost “technical and analytical skills” in the civil service.

“The civil service needs to inspire the next generation to choose, and be excited by, a career in public service,” said Henley Business School professor Elena Beleska-Spasova.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to equipping current and future leaders with the skills they need to help deliver on the promises set out in the manifesto, protect the most vulnerable and seek long-term, sustainable growth. That is why last year we launched a new training campus, enabling civil servants to develop their knowledge through a single curriculum. Through the Leadership College for Government, we also recently published a new learning prospectus, which sets out our initial plans to reform leadership and management development.”


Sam Trendall

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