Plans to address gaps in the capability of the civil service are not keeping pace with the growth of the challenges the civil service faces, according to the National Audit Office. Government needs to prioritise its projects, activities and transformation programmes and stop work on those projects it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.

Government is asking the civil service to manage important reforms even though it has reduced in size by 26% since 2006 and with smaller budgets. At the same time there has been no reduction in the overall workload of the civil service, an increase in the number of infrastructure and capital projects, increasing demand for digital projects and the decision to leave the European Union. Responding to these challenges requires new skills, particularly in managing transformation.

Departments know they do not have the specialist capability they need and are seeking more senior leaders with specialist expertise to achieve their objectives. They require greater strength in project planning, benefits realisation and contract management. Departments also reported that they would need around 2,000 additional staff in digital roles within five years’ time, although those responsible for government’s digital skills believe this is an underestimate.

Government is seeking to deliver a challenging portfolio of major projects, including Hinkley Point C, High Speed 2, and the Trident renewal. While the civil service has skilled people, many of these projects draw on the same pool of skills. For example, in rail projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink, skilled civil servants have performed a number of project roles or have been moved to fill skills gaps for new priorities or projects. While the NAO has recently seen improvements in how some departments manage projects, it continues to regularly report on troubled projects.

Traditionally, government’s workforce planning has focused on the number of people in posts and tended to treat these as generic. As a result, it has not assessed the skills of the current workforce in a comparable or structured way. This means they do not know what skills they have, whether these are in the right place and what additional skills they need. Government has acknowledged that it needs to do more on workforce planning and has committed all departments to producing workforce plans by March 2017. The ten drafts that the National Audit Office has seen show considerable improvement on previous attempts, but remain focused on staff in post and contain only a high level view of how staffing requirements are likely to change.

Government has a plan to fill its capability gaps, based on growing skills in the civil service, developing clear career paths and encouraging a talent ‘pipeline’. It is seeking to develop specialist capability through the cross-government areas of specific expertise that provide professional support and services to departments – known in government as ‘functions’. According to the NAO, however, greater urgency is needed as these initiatives will take time to mature, and the pace of change will not match the growth in the challenges government is facing. Government also needs to integrate the work of these specialist functions more effectively with that of departments, so that skills development in departments is strongly supported.

In addition, people with the skills required to carry out highly-technical projects are scarce in the economy in general and the NAO found that government does not fully understand the private sector’s capacity to supply skills. Today’s report found, for example, that around one in four senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in the post not being filled.

In addition, the Cabinet Secretary has referred to the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the EU as ‘the biggest, most complex challenge facing the civil service in our peacetime history’. It will create new capability needs across the civil service and will affect most departments. The immediate impact was the creation of two new departments. Government has also started to identify and plan for the capability needs of exiting the EU across the other departments. Departments which have had large amounts of EU-derived funding and legislation, for example, will need legal, economic and sector experts to deal with the implications of leaving the European Union, and will have to do so using their remaining staff while also seeking to achieve pre-existing priorities. As of February 2017, the civil service has created more than a thousand new roles in the new departments and elsewhere to prepare for exiting the EU and negotiating new trade agreements; two-thirds of the roles have been filled.

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“The civil service is facing ever-increasing challenges. The work of government is becoming more technical, continuing budgetary restraint is putting pressure on departments and the decision to leave the EU means government will have to develop new skills and take on work previously done by others. Government has gaps in its capability and knows it must do more to develop the skills it needs. It is making plans to do so but scale of the challenge ahead means greater urgency is needed. Without a short-term solution to its capability gaps government must get better at planning and prioritising its activities and be prepared to stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Read the full report

Capability in the Civil Service

Notes for editors

£405bn Whole-life cost of projects in the Government Major Projects Portfolio (September 2015) 26% Reduction in the number of civil servants since 2006 (in full-time equivalents) 2.1 Average score (out of five) departments gave themselves for their current capability in workforce planning 3 Main areas where the civil service needs to increase its capability 11 Functions in government: areas of expertise that provide professional support and services to departments 14,100 – 47,000 The range of estimates of the total number of civil servants in the commercial, digital, data & technology, and project delivery functions, 2016 25 Professions in government that develop capability standards and training 2,000 Additional staff with digital skills needed within five years £145 million Minimum annual cost of these additional digital staff 22% Of posts unfilled for senior recruitment competitions chaired by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16
  1. The new departments are the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade
  2. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  3. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 785 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.21 billion in 2015.

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