Central Government Insights
Does the Covid-19 crisis mean a shift away from the civil service generalist?
Calls to reform the civil service following the crisis have frequently focused on the lack of true specialists in Central Government departments. The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded many of the issues associated with high turnover – and underlined how the civil service needs to adapt for future crises.
- Experts are calling for civil servants to have more expertise and see policies through until the end
- But the role of the civil service generalist in bringing departments together and employing soft skills has never been more important
- HR’s vital role in future reform has come to the forefront in the last six months
- Mentoring offers the best opportunity to marry true specialism to the soft skills of the traditional civil servant
The UK’s civil servants, senior civil servants in particular, switch jobs much faster than their counterparts in other countries or equivalent private sector organisations. The Treasury and the Cabinet Office lose a quarter of their workforce every year, and managers across Whitehall stay in their roles for less than two years.
Turnover within the civil service is costing the government up to £74 million a year. Frequent leadership changes cause disruption, according to the Institute for Government, which harms major projects and policy developments, and means many civil servants are ill equipped to advise ministers.
“The good people tend to move every two years. And that, of course, is a total disaster when you’re trying to do something as big as reform of the welfare system, because you haven’t got continuity of civil servants,” said former welfare minister Lord Freud.
Excessive turnover is often blamed on the structure of Whitehall’s open internal jobs market. But it’s just as much a consequence of a lack of workforce planning at government level, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). Its 2017 ‘Capability in the civil service’ report states that government doesn’t have a clear picture of the workforce’s skills, nor does it have the tools to assess who is deployed where, and if they have the required ability.
The civil service, according to Institute for Government, has a culture where employees move into new roles to advance their career prospects, and those who are generalist and move roles more often are valued above those who see out projects and develop expertise in one policy area.
‘Whitehall struggles to retain knowledge and expertise in key policy teams,’ the NAO report states. ‘Ministers, who themselves often move around quickly, frequently complain that they know more about a policy area than the officials who advise them.’
In March this year, this lack of expertise compelled calls for drastic action to support the government’s response to the coronavirus. Former civil servants with experience in emergency planning were asked to return to Whitehall due to staff shortages that meant there was a lack of experience when it was needed most.
This problem has been brought up repeatedly during key periods and in relation to critical policies. For example, a lack of expertise contributed to the collapse of the InterCity West Coast franchise competition in 2012, and high turnover affected the Common Agricultural Delivery Programme.
It’s no secret that there’s a longstanding desire for civil service reform. However, the Covid-19 crisis has shone a light on the structural changes needed to incentivise workers to stay in post longer and build on their expertise, pushing this issue up the agenda.
‘In these uncertain times of change, many senior civil servants and government departments need to adapt and be equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills to prepare for what lies ahead,’ the Civil Service College website states.
The sector should reward the right mix of specialist skills, policy knowledge and generalist capabilities so that some employees move through many roles and others stay in one post longer, and have the opportunity to develop expertise and see through projects, according to an Institute for Government report.
“Too often the civil service has a less than perfect record of implementation and now we’re facing huge challenges we really need to have the people with the right capabilities and skills to deliver better services,” Baroness Simone Finn, non-executive directors to the UK Cabinet Office, said in an online event in May.
She added that the response to the Covid-19 crisis has “highlighted some serious shortcomings and some real problems” within the civil service.
However, the pandemic has also highlighted strengths within the civil service. In fact, the civil service has been widely praised for its efforts during this period. Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer of the civil service, says the pandemic demonstrated how the civil service could adapt to work more flexibly, make decisions quickly, and use skills from multiple disciplines.
Employees have also been praised for drawing on other skills that were useful during such an unprecedented time. An expert panel in September this year pointed out that, rather than just expertise, softer skills, such as resilience, adaptability and flexibility were also recognised as being important by government during the pandemic.
Reform will be a long, complex undertaking, involving all areas of government, including strengthening the role of HR, gathering data to gain better insights, and reforming pay and other incentives.
HR within the civil service has historically been treated as an add-on, experts say, and utilising it effectively will help bolster the workforce and create the right mix of specialist skills and generalist capabilities.
Mentoring has been previously prioritised in the civil service, and many hope it will revisit this as a priority. The mentor programme introduced to employees in 2016 was shut down last year; however, the civil service has alluded to future mentoring projects. This will be crucial in ensuring any reform is sustainable; mentoring is an important tool for building expertise, and the additional support could lead to staff moving between roles within the civil service in a more sustainable, measured way.
Additionally, in recent years the civil service has emphasised the importance of creating a more diverse workforce, which is also key to building on the lack of expertise that the pandemic highlighted. Bringing in a more diverse workforce will add to the sector’s expertise by bringing in people from more varied backgrounds, with a wider range of skills and experiences.
In 2017, half of all vacancies in the civil service were advertised externally, and the aim is for all vacancies to be external by default this year; this policy, if properly implemented, could hugely reduce turnover within the civil service and bring in more external expertise.
The need for reform, and the role recruitment will play in this, has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The country cannot afford another crisis where the civil service is not properly equipped with the right expertise to advise government. While employees rose to the challenges of the pandemic, and were praised for their efforts, recent months have highlighted how structural change is needed to ensure the service is best equipped to support ministers in the future with unrivalled experience and expertise.
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