The government now accepts the urgent need for a skilled cross-departmental leadership group – but this requires changing the long-standing culture of the Senior Civil Service.

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The leadership of the civil service needs the skills to meet today’s challenges if it is to deliver value for money, according to the National Audit Office. There has recently been progress in developing a new approach. The Government now accepts the urgent need for a leadership group that can think across departmental boundaries and lead change, and there is action in hand, but there is still a long way to go to change the long-standing culture of the Senior Civil Service.

The spending watchdog earlier this year welcomed the ambition of the Civil Service Reform Plan and emphasized the urgent need to make progress, given that the plan underpinned the Government’s chances of achieving further efficiency savings.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Head of the Civil Service want the civil service of the future to be ‘skilled, unified, open and accountable’. At present, however, there are significant skills shortages, particularly in the areas of commerce, project management, digital delivery and change leadership. In December 2012, only four out of 15 Permanent Secretaries at major delivery departments had significant operational delivery and commercial experience. The government is now placing a stronger focus on these skills in the recruitment and development of senior and future leaders.

The Government’s five-year plan for improving skills and performance describes a new corporate approach that is coherent, innovative and ambitious, but there are challenges. The 24 professional networks in the civil service lack influence across departmental ‘silos’ and may not be the right groupings to meet the needs of the modern service.

The Senior Civil Service 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.

Today’s report also cites evidence that promotion to the Senior Civil Service is becoming so financially unattractive as to put off talented people. Owing to the pay freeze, and changes to pensions and benefits, the total reward for senior civil servants has been reduced by around 17 per cent in real terms over four years. The NAO warns that the latest moves to increase pay flexibility and offer incentives for business critical roles may not be enough to recruit, motivate and retain the right people. 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.

“The real challenge is to shift the long-standing 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.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office


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