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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 […]


Stretching civil servants’ capability

Posted on July 20, 2017 by

Civil service stretchedThe 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

Capability definitionTime 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?

HMG Workforce PlanThe 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.

Staff skillsAnd 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.
A brilliant civil service
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


George CrockfordAbout 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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6 responses to “Stretching civil servants’ capability”

  1. @JagPatel3 says:

    The extent to which the Government’s £268 billion procurement spend can be made to work for consumers of public services is down to one factor, people.

    Actually, there are two types of people in society – those in the pay of the State and those who are not in the pay of the State. Being in the pay of the State means that these people can use their official position to perform the functions of the State (like intervening to fix market failures or using the instrument of regulation to curb anti-competitive behaviour), by authorising the expenditure of public funds in the name of the Secretary of State and committing other people, also in the pay of the State underneath them, to make things happen.

    More often than not, this involves buying goods, services and labour from people who are not in the pay of the State – namely, the Private Sector or sometimes, the Third Sector. Mainly because their own side is inept and simply not up to the job!

    But the problem with people in the pay of the State is that they are not well-informed about how the Private Sector works, because they have not known anything but the Public Sector. Indeed, they haven’t got a clue about what it is that drives the behaviour of for-profit organisations in the free market – not least, because they have not spent a single day of their lives in the Private Sector – and yet they have been put in charge of spending taxpayers’ money to buy goods, services and labour from non-public sector organisations.

    Their standing is further diminished by the fact that their ability to innovate, solve problems, learn from past mistakes and adapt to change, which is a distinctive characteristic of people in the Private Sector, has been erased in the Public Sector due to incessant conditioning of the mind from an early age.

    Which would probably explain why some parts of the Private Sector such as the Defence Industry, for example, has failed so miserably to deliver military equipment to the Armed Forces which is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life, for as long as anyone can remember.

    Instead of doing the decent thing and educating people in the pay of the State about the ways of the Private Sector, Defence Contractors are busy exploiting their ignorance, for one purpose only – relieving them of taxpayers’ money – which has, in itself, left the public finances in pretty bad shape.

    It’s not so much a lack of skills in Whitehall that is the problem, but a surplus of people with the wrong skills. Some people say that they can be retrained to equip them with the necessary skills which will enable them to deal with today’s challenging public service tasks. But the inescapable truth is that these people are simply beyond repair!

    • Joshua Reddaway says:

      Thank you for engaging in debate, Jag. The NAO’s work does not, however, confirm the picture you paint. Across our wide range of work, we have seen many excellent people working in government. The skills gap identified in our report and blog-post has arisen predominantly because the environment is changing – and it affects the private sector as well as government. This is why our report found that the public sector cannot rely on either external recruitment or consultants to fill its gaps. As to understanding how the private sector works, while the government has recognised the need to do more to improve commercial skills within government, there is a considerable flow of people between the private and public sectors (as seen by our recent report on Business Appointment Rules). This is particularly true of the defence industry where we know that contractors and civil servants often share a similar background.
      Finally, we would like to remind you and other commenters on the NAO blog to please ensure that your posts are respectful of others.
      Joshua Reddaway, NAO Director, Commercial and Contracting Community of Practice

  2. Patricia Gerrie says:

    Of course, the civil service lacks the required skills! As a member of the EU, many areas were covered and dealt with centrally by EU international civil servants and experts which allowed national governments to reduce their own staff and make economies avoiding duplication. If the UK leaves the EU, it will need to increase its establishment to cover its priority areas and, by the way, pay for it!

  3. David Walker says:

    So much, with respect, so obvious. If Rupert McNeil isn’t following this checklist already, what’s he up to? But if he can’t – because ministers and departmental axes forbid it – then NAO has failed to identify an impediment to better government (or censored itself, because it can’t be seen to criticise ministers).

    • George Crockford says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. The Civil Service is aware of and is doing the right things to address the skills gap. But it needs to do more and do it faster if it is to have the capacity and capability to achieve all its plans. This is why we have stressed the importance of prioritising projects and activities and, frankly, doing less. At times this may mean standing up to ministers, as we have said previously in our post Spending your money wisely. Departments’ Permanent Secretaries are now being held to account more strongly than ever, as they are required to publish annual ‘Accounting Officer System Statements’ for their departments and ‘Accounting Officer Assessments’ for major projects. To have assurance that public money is being spent effectively, they need assurance that there are the skills needed to deliver the plans. If they don’t have this assurance, they should not proceed. This is more easily said than done, but crucial, nevertheless. George Crockford

  4. Marie Eakins says:

    This Government more so than any before, needs to wake up to the arrogant and intentional disruption ‘it’ is causing to ‘our’ publics work force, it needs to support them more in every way, pay, training, leave entitlement and security to name a few, help them the way they help themselves.

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