Civil service blunders will continue ‘without skills overhaul’

17 Mar 15

Costly failures such as the government’s botched award of the West Coast mainline franchise will continue unless there is an ‘honest appraisal’ of the skills gaps in the civil service, MPs have said.

Examining the West Coast mainline franchise competition as a case study of civil service effectiveness, the public administration select committee said the process was undermined by severe financial constraints, and by senior civil servants not being replaced.

The Department for Transport had to revoke its decision to award the franchise for the key intercity rail route to transport firm First Group due to what Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said were ‘unacceptable mistakes’ by his department in 2012. These included errors in the evaluation of risk, specifically how inflation and passenger numbers were taken into account and the money bidders were asked to guarantee as a result.

The select committee said the Civil Service Capabilities Plan, described by the Cabinet Office as a key part of the government’s overall reform proposals, was right to focus on improving skills in four key areas.

These were change management, commercial skills, project delivery, and service redesign to increase the use of technology. This focus was welcome, committee chair Bernard Jenkin said, but there was still a lack of clear leadership in the civil service to drive reforms. New civil service chief executive John Manzoni should be made clearly accountable for understanding the current leadership skills provision across all departments and driving improvements, he said.
In addition, the Cabinet Office should adopt a standardised framework for auditing departmental skills levels, and the National Audit Office should be invited to carry out a civil service wide skills audit on a regular basis.

‘With the continued focus on best-value tendering and efficiently maximising severely constrained resources, it is ever more essential that the Civil Service has the skills to manage and negotiate on an equal basis with the wide range of players that now deliver public services and major infrastructure projects,’ Jenkin added.

‘The very kinds of efficiencies and excellence that we are trying build into project and service delivery must exist within the civil service itself to realise these goals. Short-term presentational gains and savings are a false economy if key skills are not developed, or existing skills that were expensively acquired are lost.’

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