Ministers need training to support Whitehall transformation, report finds

Written by Beckie Smith on 26 May 2021 in News
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Think tank flags up need for extra skills

Credit: PA

Ministers should be made to undergo training as part of a number of wide-ranging reforms to how Whitehall and the civil service works, a leading think tank has recommended.

In a report released today, Policy Exchange's Exchange’s Reform of Government Commission said the civil service must do more to attract and retain talented staff – but the civil service is not the only source of roadblocks to progress.

The report, which has been endorsed by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, argued that civil service reform must be accompanied by solutions addressing ministerial skills and churn if departments are to achieve their long-term policy priorities.

In particular, ministers should undergo policy- and delivery-orientated training covering areas including procurement, digital delivery, stats and data, and practical skills like better decision-making and chairing meetings, according to the think tank, while prospective ministers should be better prepared for jobs.

“Greater ministerial training in such areas will help to ensure that, when policies are designed, ministers have a better understanding of the consequences and implications of different policy options,” the report said. 

The government’s recent push for ministerial training – under which every minister with major infrastructure spending responsibilities must sit a specific course – should be “encouraged, expanded and continued”.

Training should be modelled on the infrastructure-focused course set up with the Infrastructure Projects Authority and the Said Business School at Oxford University, the report said. Similar courses would help “understand the trade-offs and difficulties of other areas”, according to the think tank.


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It stressed that training programmes should be available to junior ministers – who are “often the engine room of government” – and not just secretaries of state.

And they must also be available to prospective ministers, given that those in post will have little time to complete multiple training courses. That should be just one way the government and political parties should work to establish a “pipeline of political talent”, Policy Exchange said – noting that this additional support should be provided for both backbench MPs and opposition spokespeople.

Such training would help to equip new ministers to handle the crises they are often faced with upon arriving in office, the report said. However, it argued that turnover among ministers must also be reduced.

“At present, ministerial reshuffles are too frequent and ministers are overstretched by competing and contradictory expectations,” it said.

Better preparation and support for ministers would ensure they have “both the incentive and the capacity to tackle long-term policy problems”, it said.

The report also called on the government to restore Extended Ministerial Offices – and make them simpler to set up – to improve access to expert advice.

Better-equipped ministers should set out their priorities to departments in a clearer way through “comprehensive and accountable frameworks” – and permanent secretaries must be held to account for delivering them, the report said.

Ministers should set clear targets for departments and issue “letters of strategic priorities” to perm secs, the think tank said.

Renewal of perm secs’ contracts would then be conditional on meeting these targets and on their “track record for reform”, according to the plan. Since 2014, perm secs have been appointed for five-year, fixed-term contracts.

The report also called for ministers to have “active involvement” in the Outcome Delivery Plans, which will be introduced later this year.

“Ministers must use ODPs to hold their own department to account and there must be serious consequences for failure to deliver them. ODPs should be published in their entirety (with the usual exemptions for commercially or security sensitive information),” the report said.

“There should also be a clear and transparent way for observers to monitor the progress of departments against these plans,” it added, saying ODPs must be published in full.

Skills and churn
The change is one of several the think tank has proposed as part of a strategy to “recruit, maintain and develop a skilled, talented and capable workforce” in the civil service.

Officials throughout the civil service must also undergo “robust performance evaluation” in a bid to improve the quality of work and reduce churn, it said.

“Frequent and uncontrolled job movement within the civil service can prevent public servants from developing deep expertise in policy areas,” it noted. 

Reforms to the Fast Stream and an increase in the number of Senior Responsible Owners overseeing the implementation of projects could help to address a dearth of specialist skills – a frequently cited problem in critiques of the civil service – the report said.

Higher pay may be needed to attract some important skills, the think tank said, but it stressed that higher salaries should be targeted to particular roles rather than introduced across the board.

It also called on government to do more to attract and integrate external hires to increase the diversity of available skills – but added that conflicts of interest must be managed “carefully”.

These changes should help to reduce the civil service’s reliance on consultants, contractors, and temporary staff, but the report added that the government must also exercise greater central controls on departmental spending on consultancies.

'Authoritative and timely'
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove endorsed the report, calling it an “important contribution to this crucial debate” and called it a “valuable guide to modernisation of government”.

“As this report argues, ministers and officials will ensure the promotion of the most capable civil servants, with promotion based on talent rather than time served. This will help us to level up opportunity and build back better after the pandemic,” Gove, the minister in charge of civil service reform, said.

The report also included endorsements from former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill and former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport permanent secretary Dame Sue Owen.

“This is an authoritative and timely report,” Sedwill wrote.

“Crucially, the commission addressed governance as a whole, encompassing both the political and professional elements of public service. In considering their recommendations, central, devolved and local governments should likewise maintain a comprehensive perspective.” 

Owen added: “This is not another report setting out the problems; the Commission has grasped the big questions on civil service reform with a really constructive set of proposals.”

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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