Posted on July 20, 2017 by George Crockford
The civil service is under pressure, as we found in our recent report Capability in the Civil Service. It has lost one in four civil servants since 2006 – with no reduction in workload, there’s a growing number of major projects to implement, greater public demand for services, new technologies – bringing both opportunities and threats, new ways of delivering public services, and action needed to leave the European Union. How can public sector organisations get or develop the people and skills they need? The first thing is: prioritise; it simply must do less.
The skills challenge
Time and again we – and others, such as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) – find that a shortage of the right skills or leadership, or high turnover and loss of continuity are key reasons many projects flounder. And the pressure on specialist skills, in particular, is growing. The severe shortage of skills reflects budget cuts, a 26% drop in the number of civil servants since 2006, and the need for new skills due to new technology, new approaches to public services, more demands on services, and action required to leave the EU.
The government recognises the problem. It also knows that filling skill-gaps by recruiting from the private sector isn’t an ‘easy solution’, as many specialist skills are rare and also highly sought-after in the private sector, e.g. for cyber security. So it is doing the right thing by developing skills within the public sector … in the long-term.
But right now, how can the public sector ensure it has the skills it needs today? Although government and individual organisations must improve their workforce planning and should continue to work to develop future skills, ultimately the only short-term solution is to prioritise projects and activities to relieve pressure on capability.
What’s being done across government?
The Civil Service Workforce Plan 2016-2020 sets out the government’s priority areas for improving civil service skills and experience: commercial capability, digital transformation, and diversity and inclusiveness; all underpinned by stronger leadership at all levels. Its strategy for creating a more professional, delivery-oriented civil service is to grow skills internally and to develop career paths with a more flexible reward structures and an inclusive workplace to attract key staff.
There are three aspects to help make this happen:
Developing strategic workforce plans: In these new five-year plans, departments have to set out (among other things): the skills needed, the skills gaps and plans to fill these gaps.
Civil Service Professions: Almost all civil servants belong, at least nominally, to one of 25 recognised civil service professions. These professions work to raise standards, provide training and career development opportunities and promote collaboration.
Functions: In 2013 the government introduced 11 functions (which, together with the professions, are detailed on GOV.UK: About us showing that each functions is represented by a profession). The key difference from the Civil Service Professions is that functions have more responsibility for ensuring the quality of work.
But being ‘responsible’ and being ‘accountable’ for delivery aren’t the same thing and our study found that there is a lack of clarity about the nature of the responsibility and the Functions’ roles. In reviewing their maturity in Capability in the Civil Service, we found that most of the 11 functions are not yet well developed.
What can organisations do?
With so many projects planned and underway and such fierce competition for scarce specialist skills, the only way to ensure sufficient capability in the short term is to prioritise; stop doing an activity or project if the skills are lacking. It’s not easy to stop a project or activity once it’s started, but without the right skills, the alternative could be the failure of a project and loss of many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
And it goes without saying that new projects should not be started without ensuring that the skills needed are known and available – including at leadership level. Too often specialists and experienced leaders are simply shifted from one project or area of operations to a new project, potentially jeopardising the original project or activities as a result through loss of skills and knowledge and/or change of direction.
Forecasting skill needs is challenging, but organisations could do much more than they are currently. In our recent study we found that departments’ estimated skills shortages were substantially lower than the relevant estimates by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the IPA. And in both this study and our good practice guide, Managing business operations (MBO) – what government needs to get right, we found that many organisations don’t have an established approach to determining whether they have the necessary skills, especially when service delivery crosses organisational boundaries.
So how do you know what skills are needed and what skills are lacking?
Have an effective people strategy: A people strategy should be in place, linking directly to the organisation’s strategy (or Single Departmental Plans where relevant), and prioritising the support of staff to develop the skills and capabilities they need to achieve business objectives. Whether at the level of the organisation or a project, the strategy should focus on the skills needed – not the number of staff at different grades. It needs to incorporate a flexible approach to resourcing that enables the organisation to adapt quickly to changes in business requirements.
Understand the skills needed: Whether setting up a project or managing an operational team, there should be a regularly-updated understanding of the skills required and gaps in their availability (one possible tool is a skills matrix). This process needs to trigger activities to close the identified gaps, for example, through training or coaching. A thorough analysis of resources needed and available (including in the private sector) should be undertaken before committing to any new projects. If resources need to be moved from ongoing operations or other projects, the impact needs to be assessed and acceptable before proceeding.
Assess and monitor use of specialist skills: With specialist skills in short supply, organisations need to record how their specialists spend their time, to be sure that they are using their skills in the best way and on the most important areas of delivery.
Build skills and take advantage of the Professions and Functions: As the civil service becomes increasingly ‘specialist’ and moves away from ‘generalist’ civil servant skills, there is increasing need to use the Professions’ and Functions’ specialist and leadership training and skills-development support. Take advantage of the Functions’ role in sharing good practice, providing wider support such as recruitment services, and their role is ensuring quality.
To achieve a ‘brilliant civil service’ – including people with the desired skills – government as a whole, individual organisations, and the Functions and Professions supporting government need to do more and do it faster. At present, the pace of change in recognising and growing skills simply does not match the growth in the challenges government faces.
The NAO will continue to share examples of good practice that we see across government. We will continue to blog on this crucial matter and invite your comments and encourage you to contact us.
Some useful NAO resources
Departments’ oversight of arm’s length bodies (ALBs): a comparative study, which notes that departments are missing opportunities to exploit the skills and expertise that exist within ALBs.
Blog-post: Skills for digital transformation
The NAO’s self-assessment resources
About the author: George Crockford is an Audit Manager on the NAO’s cross-government team. This team looks at cross-cutting issues including the civil service workforce. George is also a member of the NAO’s internal Diversity Delivery Board and Head of Learning and Development for our work on value-for-money. He joined the NAO in 2006.
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