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Reforming the Senior Civil Service

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2013

A new National Audit Office report into the skills and capabilities of the senior civil service has said there is “still a long way to go” to change its longstanding culture. Adam Hewitt reports. 

The National Audit Office has welcomed the Government’s acceptance of the “urgent need” for a new leadership group on senior civil service reform, one able to ignore departmental boundaries and actually lead change at the top. 

The new NAO report, ‘Building capability in the Senior Civil Service (SCS) to meet today’s challenges’, says: “There is action in hand, but there is still a long way to go to change the long-standing culture of the SCS.” 

The report focuses on the kind of training and new skills needed to ensure value for money can be delivered, noting that such changes are a vital element of the Government’s wider efficiency goals. 

The NAO reported in 2011 on the “significant skills gaps” in the SCS, which the Government accepted in its 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan in that it recognised the need for a change in its “culture and skill set”. But the skills gaps, on the whole, remain – particularly in commercial skills, project and programme management, digital delivery and change leadership. 

The Government is now placing a stronger focus on these skills in the recruitment and development of senior and future leaders. 

But more worryingly, there is a distinct lack of reliable data on this and the professional qualifications and experience of the whole SCS. In April 2012, this amounted to more than 3,600 staff, 2,753 of whom held deputy director roles, earning a combined £303m in basic salary. 

Of the 15 permanent secretaries working for the main ‘delivery departments’, only four have “significant operational delivery and commercial experience”. The turnover rate in the SCS in 2011-12 was 16.9%. 

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The real challenge is to shift the longstanding culture in the civil service to create a leadership group with the full range of skills needed for success, today and in the future, and which is a shared resource across government. This is far easier said than done. The case for a corporate approach is now inescapable but achieving full buy-in from departments will take time. 

“Progress will need to be rapid and involve all senior civil servants, not just those on corporate talent programmes.” 

The NAO’s recommendations are split into four: some are aimed at the Head of the Civil Service and permanent secretaries, some at permanent secretaries working with the heads of professions, and the others for the Cabinet Office or civil service HR. 

A key recommendation is that senior civil servants should be “active members of a specialist profession and keep their profession-specific skills and networks up to date”, with a stronger role for the heads of those professions. 

The existing 24 professional networks “lack influence across departmental ‘silos’ and may not be the right groupings to meet the needs of the modern service”, the NAO says. 

Civil service HR should review those professions, plus gather better data on the demographics, performance and skills of the SCS. 

The NAO says: “The SCS cannot be described as a unified leadership group at present. Below the ‘top 200’ civil servants, senior civil servants see themselves, first and foremost, as members of a department and many have no expectations of moving. 

“The Government intends to open up the service, with more internal transfers and free flow of skills to and from the private sector, and build on an approach already in place for the top 200.

“But the proportion of new recruits from the private sector fell in 2009-10 as departments cut spending, and has yet to recover.” 

Pay is also an issue: it is down 17% in real terms since four years ago, and proposed new incentives for business-critical roles do not go far enough to address this, the NAO said.

“While there is currently a low rate of resignations, there is a risk that economic recovery could see an exodus of the most talented and marketable senior people, at the very time when effective corporate leadership is needed to meet the challenges of the remainder of the Parliament,” it added. 

Senior Civil Service professions and number of posts (as of April 2012) 

•  Policy (1,055)

•  Operational delivery (494)

•  Law (307)

•  Finance (204)

•  Project delivery (160)

•  Human resources (123)

•  Tax professionals (103)

•  Information technology (100)

•  Economics (80)

•  Medicine (72)

•  Communications and marketing (71)

•  Science and engineering (69)

•  Procurement and contract management (53)

•  Statistics (43)

•  Planning (26)

•  Knowledge and information management (15)

•  Property asset management (14)

•  Internal audit (9)

•  Operational research (8)

•  Social and market research (8)

•  Veterinarian (8)

•  Inspector of education and training (6)

•  Other (90)

•  Not known (498)


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