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The professionals are coming, by Joseph McHugh

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02 December 2005

Big changes are afoot in Whitehall, starting with the role of the traditional civil servant. But will this rush to 'professionalise' have the desired effect? Public Finance and Deloitte invited a top-flight team of experts from within and without the civil service to thrash out the issues. Joseph McHugh reports

Professionalisation is the new watchword among civil servants. The days of the gifted Whitehall amateur are over and the modern mandarin is expected to have a range of specialist skills and operational experience as well as the expertise in policy formulation that has traditionally been their realm.

The necktie – officially declared dead by former Cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull at the launch of the National School of Government in June – has joined the bowler hat in the bin as ministers strive to create modern public services and show a return on the considerable investment of recent years.

But are their planned reforms well designed and will they succeed? Public Finance, in association with Deloitte, convened a round table of top-flight civil servants, public policy experts and academics on November 21 to discuss the government's attempt to shake up the civil service as an institution.

Ministers have introduced a range of initiatives designed to give Whitehall's future high-flyers the breadth of experience and skills they need to understand every part of their organisation. The Professional Skills for Government programme is being set up to give career civil servants experience in three main groups – policy analysis, operational delivery and corporate services. It will also make sure that, for example, finance, human resources and legal staff working in departments are professionally qualified.

At the same time, Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell is introducing Departmental Capability Reviews for all ministries. Billed as 'CPA for Whitehall', these are intended to assess how well departments are run – although the extent to which the exercise will measure their delivery of outcomes is not yet clear.

The round table brought together some of the professionals who will have to implement the modernisation programme. The event was chaired by Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.

Participants included Sir Richard Mottram, chair of the Government Skills Board, the sector skills council for central government, and also the government's security and intelligence co-ordinator, and Sir Michael Bichard, rector of the University of the Arts in London and a former permanent secretary at the then Department for Education and Employment.

Mottram – who, as chair of the skills board is the lead civil servant for Professional Skills for Government – explained the philosophy underpinning the programme. He said it was designed to put an end to the 'career silos' that meant civil servants had only limited opportunities to acquire new skills and develop their careers.

The programme would help to blur the distinctions between policy, specialist and operational staff and ensure that they all had a suite of core skills that straddled the three areas. 'It's about creating teams where the person in charge could be from a variety of backgrounds, but you must have the core skills,' Mottram explained.

'So, if you're not professionally qualified, you have to show you've got the [necessary] skills, and if you come from a more specialist background, you need to show that you can develop these broader skills.'

Anne-Marie Lawlor, the director of leadership and development strategy at the Cabinet Office and chief executive of the skills board, said there would be a firm focus on ensuring that people used their new knowledge and skills in their daily working lives. It would also have an impact on promotion prospects.

'It is very much about how people employ the skills they have learned,' Lawlor explained. 'We expect people, in the course of their development reviews, to review themselves and then again with their line managers.'

Ian Magee, former head of profession for operational delivery, backed the reform programme, saying it was important that policy was developed by people who understand operational needs. 'You can have the best policy in the world but unless there is feedback to the policy analyst [from those implementing it], you're not going to get very far.'

Mal Singh, head of finance professionalism at the Treasury, said good progress was already being made on broadening the skills of senior staff. 'It is now government policy that we should have qualified finance directors who report to the permanent secretary,' he said. 'As we stand at this month, 60% of central government departments have qualified finance directors.'

But dissenting voices quickly emerged around the table. George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, said the PSG programme missed the real need in the civil service, which was for more, not less, policy analysis expertise.

'The civil service has been cut too much so there aren't the policy specialists to do the policy analysis needed,' he said. '[The PSG] is distracting the civil service from its real role of good policy analysis.'

Jones also argued that the professional model had been discredited in the public sector, notably local government, which he claimed had been criticised for its 'domination by professionals'. He asked: 'Why is the government running off to copy a model that has been discredited elsewhere?'

Mottram responded by saying that the civil service top brass were aware of the risks of such an approach and would avoid them. 'If you over-professionalise and encourage professional baronies, then you will be worse off.'

Sir Michael Bichard confessed his scepticism about the PSG programme, arguing that the drive for greater professionalism could actually create further barriers between different groups of staff. 'It is exclusive rather than inclusive. It tends towards elitism. The policy specialists will buttress themselves,' he said. 'We don't want a world where policy people talk to deliverers, we need a world where there's mobility between the two.'

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA, said his union, which represents senior civil servants, was 'very supportive' of the PSG initiative. But he said there needed to be greater clarity over what exactly the government expected of civil servants. 'Delivering effective public policy has to be at the heart of the civil service,' he said. 'But there is always a tension between effective policy development and political imperative.' He added: 'I'm not clear what the government regards the role of the civil service as being.'

The round table of experts had just as many questions about the Whitehall Departmental Capability Reviews. Although the Cabinet secretary first announced them in October, much of the detail has yet to be worked out.

Guy Lodge, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research specialising in civil service issues, rejected the notion that DCRs were 'CPA for Whitehall', arguing that there were crucial differences between the two. 'It is not a CPA because it is focused very firmly on capability, rather than performance.'

Lodge said other differences include the failure to ensure independence by building external validation of the findings into the model, the lack of clarity over how DCRs would fit with other Whitehall assessments such as Public Service Agreements, and the refusal to discuss what sanctions might be used against failing departments.

His criticisms of the model were endorsed by many others, including Bichard, who said: 'The more I've looked at it, the more I've wanted to support it and the less I have been able to do so.'

Lucy de Groot, executive director of the Improvement and Development Agency for local government and a former senior mandarin at the Treasury, warned that many in the civil service would have a sense of déjà vu about the DCRs.

She said she had witnessed three or four different models of assessment during her time in Whitehall. 'Is this process going to learn from the successes and failures of all the other regimes?' she asked. 'A lot of the punters that do the work will have seen these come and go. There is an issue about how this is going to work and if it is going to stay.'

She also said it would be crucial to ensure the reviews linked the corporate governance of the ministry with the services they deliver, otherwise they would lack credibility.

Bichard said the reason DCRs were needed was because the National Audit Office had failed to hold the government to account. 'It is the failure of the NAO to achieve centrally what the Audit Commission has successfully achieved locally that is causing us constantly to look for some other way of assessing performance,' he claimed.

But Nick Sloan, director of performance measurement at the NAO, rejected that criticism on the grounds that the watchdog's authority is limited by statute. 'We're not allowed to question the merits of policy objectives. For most politicians, PSA targets are the expression of policy objectives, so we start from a bad place.'

He added that it would be very difficult to assess the full range of a department's activities and 'boil it down to a single rating'.

But Dr Peter Kane, director of the Office of Public Services Reform in the Cabinet Office, argued that the reviews would be more robust than others thought, and would take account of a department's performance in achieving outcomes.

'The fact that it will be located within the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit shows the intention is to make sure it is aligned with delivery,' he said.

Meanwhile, Curtis Juman, finance change director at the Department for Work and Pensions, cautioned against the civil service taking an excessively critical view of itself. He argued that there were a number of success stories in Whitehall that should be given a higher profile.

'We don't blow our own trumpet enough,' he said. 'We have a number of good lessons to be learned, for example from Office of Government Commerce gateway reviews. I have been subject to them and I haven't enjoyed them, but actually there is good methodology and a good process of handling something in a supportive way that allows departments to succeed further and celebrate some success.'

But Bichard argued that radical reform of the civil service was necessary, suggesting that it should be integrated with local government, the NHS and other publicly funded bodies and renamed the 'public service'.

He said this would establish parity of esteem between the various parts of the public sector, encourage partnership working by building trust between different services and encourage the transfer of ideas, as well as people. It would also open up career paths across the different services.

'The current arrangements do not ensure that the best people fill the most senior jobs in government,' Bichard said.

However, Steve Bundred, chief executive of the Audit Commission, foresaw 'substantial practical problems' with such an approach. He said it could break the strong link with their localities that council workers often felt and which helped to motivate them.

On a more practical note, Bundred also pointed out the difficulties of combining the funded local government pension scheme with the unfunded civil service scheme.

He said a better approach would be to consider: 'How do you get the benefits without reinventing the whole of the public service?'

Mottram was also sceptical, pointing out that a fully integrated public service would mean an organisation with a workforce of around 5.45 million people. 'Ask yourself whether that's a manageable concept,' he said.

But Mike Turley, Deloitte's partner-in-charge for its government and public sector division, said the sheer scale of an integrated public service need not be an insurmountable problem. His experience of working for a large corporation had illustrated that.

'You have to break the organisation down into manageable units,' he said. 'Being able to manage your human capital on the basis of a common currency is very valuable.'

That may be so, however there is little prospect of ministers adopting Bichard's proposals for wider-ranging reforms any time soon.

And, in truth, the shake-up of Whitehall already under way is likely to keep civil servants pretty busy as they juggle the new demands being made on them alongside the everyday task of implementing government policy. But, no matter – they're professionals. Or they will be soon. L

Professional Skills for Government

Professional Skills for Government was launched in October 2004 by then Cabinet secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull. It is intended to end the traditional distinction between 'generalists' and 'specialists' in the civil service.

According to the civil service website, PSG 'will enable staff in all areas of the civil service to develop the skills and experience needed to design and deliver twenty-first century services'.

The PSG framework splits Whitehall jobs into three broad career groupings: corporate services (including back-office functions such as finance and human resources); policy delivery; and operational delivery (including project management and frontline delivery).

These groups 'will have parity of esteem' and will offer routes to jobs at departmental board level.

PSG will require civil servants to demonstrate skills and expertise in four areas at the appropriate level in relation to their job and chosen career path.

These are:
Leadership skills to ensure that senior staff are able to deliver results
Core skills, including:

  • people management
  • financial management
  • programme and project
  • management
  • analysis and use of evidence

For the senior civil service (grade one), they also include:
  • strategic thinking
  • communications and marketing.
Job-related professional skills to ensure that staff have appropriate professional qualifications.
Broader experience: senior civil servants will require experience of working in more than one career grouping. These will be tested at three key career gateways: entry to Grade 7 (or equivalent), to SCS Pay Band 1, and to SCS Pay Band 3.

Participants

Tony Travers (chair), director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics
Jonathan Baume, feneral secretary, FDA
Sir Michael Bichard, rector, University of the Arts, London
Steve Bundred, chief executive, Audit Commission
Lucy de Groot, executive director, Improvement and Development Agency
George Jones, emeritus professor of government, London School of Economics
Curtis Juman, finance change director, Department for Work and Pensions
Dr Peter Kane, director, Office of Public Services Reform
Anne-Marie Lawlor, director of leadership & development strategy, Cabinet Office
Guy Lodge, research fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research
Ian Magee, former head of profession for operational delivery, Professional Skills for Government
Sir Richard Mottram, chair, Government Skills Board
Mal Singh, head of finance professionalism, The Treasury
Nick Sloan, director of performance management, National Audit Office

PFdec2005

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