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Civil Service skills gap causing ‘costly failures’ says PASC

The Civil Service needs to carry out an “honest appraisal” of the skills it lacks or else costly failures like the botched award of the West Coast Main Line franchise will continue to happen, a cross-party group of MPs has said.

The Public Administration Select Committee said that the service also needs to look at its ability to ensure the best officials aren't poached by the private sector.

In 2013 ministers launched a fresh strategy for boosting Whitehall skills called the Capability Plan but the PASC believes the focus is “too narrow and one-dimensional”, and calls for more to be done to strengthen the “complementary and supportive skills” civil servants need to do their jobs.

At present the Capability Plan only focuses on four areas: leading and managing change; commercial skills and behaviours; programme and project management; and digital skills. But the report raises concerns that the Civil Service still lacks the ability to provide proper training in vital areas including risk management and the proper use of data.

The report uses the West Coast Main Line franchise competition as a case study for the way procurement and bidding processes have sometimes been mishandled by the Civil Service, many parts of which currently operate under severe resource constraints. PASC has previously reported on major procurement failures in areas like government IT.

The committee also found that due to financial constraints, senior civil servants who leave are not replaced. An example of the type of problem this can cause can be found in procurement, where the loss of experience leaves remaining staff to negotiate with external tenderers with far more experience of bidding and competition processes.

Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the committee said: “With the continued focus on best-value tendering and efficiently maximising severely constrained resources, it is ever more essential that the Civil Service has the skills to manage and negotiate on an equal basis with the wide range of players that now deliver public services and major infrastructure projects.

“The very kinds of efficiencies and excellence that we are trying build into project and service delivery must exist within the Civil Service itself to realise these goals. Short term presentational gains and savings are a false economy if key skills are not developed, or existing skills that were expensively acquired are lost.”

The report recommends that the Cabinet Office should have a standardised framework for auditing departmental skills levels and that the National Audit Office should be invited to carry out a Civil Service-wide skills audit on a regular basis.

PASC also supports the establishment of a new Civil Service Leadership Academy to address the unique challenges faced by public sector service leaders which conventional business training cannot address, and to serve as a nucleus for civil service reform.

Jenkin added: “Conventional business training cannot address the unique challenges faced in the public sector: the new Civil Service Leadership Academy needs to provide a unique focus on the key skills – and complementary and supportive skills across Whitehall – required by a modern Civil Service if it is to deliver its leaders’ vision.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior managers and professionals in public service, welcomed the committee’s call for a focus on pay.

He said: “The evidence for taking action is compelling if we are to avoid an ‘exodus’ of the skilled and talented people most needed to deliver the new administrations challenging programme for government.

“As PASC recommends, this needs to be a priority for the incoming government in May.”

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