The training and development of civil servants

21 June 2022


The training and development of civil servants

Reported by Julia Amtmann, CSaP Visiting Researcher

Pamela Dow, Executive Director of the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit (GSCU), delivered an online seminar to CSaP Policy Fellows on 1 June 2022, on how to enhance the knowledge, skills, and networks of civil servants. The GSCU was established in September 2020, within the Cabinet Office, but supporting the whole of Government. Its mission is to better training, knowledge, and networks across the civil service and public sector, through a shared curriculum (the 'what'), and Campus (the 'how'). The Campus and curriculum cover all skills, and all roles. At the moment there is a focus on the importance of understanding and using data, to ensure that those who lead and manage complex projects and public services are equipped to succeed.

Dow began the seminar by explaining that Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered weaknesses in the resilience, responsiveness, and effectiveness of many institutions, but particularly the civil service. Part of the explanation was about capabilities, with politicians and senior officials alike concluding a greater focus is required on the development of skills, knowledge, and networks of civil servants.

The investment in people's capabilities is not just a vital component for impact but an important part of the employee offer for a public servant.

Dow explained that her team at the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit identified a range of problems to solve, including:

1. The struggle of career starters with core skills of government

It was found that new starters or career switchers often struggled with clarity and the provision of core skills and knowledge for government. Whereas people with networks into government might be equipped with the right skills and get a head-start, others are lacking the necessary knowledge and networks. Hence the team's goal is to give everyone an equal chance to succeed, and to be open about the required tools and knowledge to be effective.

2. The new challenges of modern government

The knowledge and skills required for modern government are not isolated in one realm but universally needed for impact in public policy and delivery, in a global society. This is why it is important civil servants are equipped with foundational knowledge across a broad range of new domains, like big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and breakthroughs in the physical sciences.

3. Leadership and management

Acquiring the expertise to both lead and administer an organisation and to manage available resources is essential in government. Dow pointed out that previously less time was invested in training civil servants to manage a team well, than on the qualities of leadership. Both are necessary, but be good performance, project, or people managers are in shorter supply than they should be.

The government director emphasised that through a shared core curriculum, an enabling infrastructure is created where civil servants can learn collectively. She made the case that in establishing the new Leadership College, the nation will ultimately benefit from higher skilled, better networked public servants and leaders, with expertise at both a technical and senior level. Additionally, the barriers between central civil servants and local government, policy and delivery, strategy and operations, can be reduced.

The seminar was then followed by a brief discussion involving policy makers, academics, and civil servants. One participant suggested that not all the necessary skills of a civil servant can be learnt in training programmes or institutes. Instead, some essential competences are based on common sense and through the logic of a working situation. It was discussed that civil servants and political leaders do not have the adequate information and knowledge to respond to a specific situation. Dow stressed that in such settings data training is vital for civil servants, so they are able to interpret prescriptive big data sets, in order to make the right decisions. Her and the participants agreed that more investment into developing skills of current and future civil servants is therefore essential, especially a universal grounding in statistical concepts.

Julia Amtmann

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Pamela Dow

Cabinet Office