Historically, the training culture of the Civil Service was weak. It existed mostly for technical tasks that were related to administrative jobs rather than having a focus on leadership and management. One reason for this weakness was the emphasis on involvement in policy making rather than policy implementation as the key to promotion to the more senior grades (Hennessy, 1989). This culture has slowly changed, not least with the development of ‘Executive Agencies’ at the end of the 1980s (James et al., 2011) and the growing involvement of outside contractors in service delivery and specialist areas such as finance and IT. This led to a demand for a more professional approach to project management as well as managing the contractual relationship with non-civil service firms (Cabinet Office, 2002).
However, a number of subsequent reports (HM Government, 2012; National Audit Office, 2014) continue to point to serious weaknesses in actually managing service delivery, project management and contractors. While this could be seen as indicating flaws in the approach to training and development, there are other possible explanations such as the wider culture, policies being developed for political rather than administrative reasons and lack of capacity to manage external firms. This relates to the wider issue that it is often very difficult to evaluate the impact of any HR initiative in terms of output criteria (Camps and Luna-Arocas, 2012; Taylor et al., 2010) due to the multiplicity of potential variables that might have an impact (Devins and Smith, 2013).
This report explores these themes in the context of the approach to training in the UK Civil Service. It starts with a discussion around the recent change in approach within the Civil Service and then reviews the literature on the successful implementation of organisational learning and development approach. This is followed by a critique and review of the new approach. To help place this in context, the focus is on the Department of Work and Pensions implementation of Universal Credit (BBC, 2014).
Approach in the Civil Service
As discussed, the approach to both developing senior leadership and wider organisational learning in the Civil Service has seen significant change. The old model was one of recruiting bright individuals and expecting them to learn from a varied series of postings with a particular emphasis on policy development and working with Government Ministers (Hennessy, 1989). One consequence of this was a lack of focus on implementation and management of projects once and an important reason for the creation of executive agencies (James et al., 2011) in the late 1980s was that the resulting focus on administration and implementation would lead to a change in mindset of staff aiming for the higher grades in the Civil Service.
Over time, there have been a number of attempts at changing the focus of management training in the Civil Service. This has included an emphasis on project management, especially in the context of IT systems, and working with external providers (Cabinet Office, 2002). The latest iteration of this process was set out in the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan (HM Government, 2012). This is part of a wider set of proposals including a plan that service delivery should be ‘digital by default’, but the bulk of the focus is on improved project and policy management by “improving the skills, abilities and performance of civil servants, by producing a 5-year capabilities plan for the whole civil service” (HM Government, 2012: 18). In terms of capacity building, the focus is on (all quotes are from page 23):
“The old idea of a Civil Service ‘generalist’ is dead”;
“Some skills gaps have already been identified, such as leading and managing change, commercial, financial, programme and project management, digital skills, skills in managing risk and the ability to drive continuous improvement”, and;
“there is a serious need for many more civil servants to have commercial and contracting skills”.
While some of this applies to all staff, there is still a strong emphasis on the identification of individuals early in their career, usually at application, who will be given specific training and development opportunities. However, weaknesses continue especially in contract management and a recent report has found serious shortcomings in terms of staff capacity and expertise (National Audit Office, 2014).
This approach can be characterised as an attempt not just to improve certain skills but to bring about a wider shift in culture (HM Government, 2012). The current culture is described as “cautious and slow-moving, focused on process not outcomes, bureaucratic, hierarchical and resistant to change” (HM Government, 2012:.9). The aim is an organisation that becomes “pacier, more flexible, focussed on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo” (HM Government, 2012: 27). This is grounded in organisational development and organisational learning rather than specific training approaches (Glaister et al., 2013; Gold et al., 2013).
Management learning and development is a complex field (Boxall and Gilbert, 2007), not least as there is still a legacy of the traditional ‘heroic’ model where leadership is seen as an innate skill possessed by certain people rather than something that can be learned and developed (Daft, 2008). This is relevant as the civil service has taken a historic approach based on what can be called an ‘elite’ model of management development (Boxall and Gilbert, 2007) with identified individuals recruited to specific career paths. From this staff development was a mixture of formal training but also experience in a multiplicity of roles, reflecting the traditional model of civil service managers as highly intelligent generalists (Hennessy, 1989). The fundamental problem with this approach is that recruitment tends to be from a relatively narrow group, “may exclude significant sources of potential ability from the identification and selection process” (Boxall and Gilbert, 2007: 108) and lead to over-reliance on a particular skill set. As such, there is nothing in the new process that suggests a significant departure from this approach.
One key challenge in understanding the impact of any HR initiative, especially in the fields of organisational development and organisational learning, is the relationship between internal changes and the end result (Camps and Luna-Arocas, 2012). Some models of organisational behaviour assume a direct relationship between adoption of a new policy and outcomes but most approaches can be described as ‘contingent’ or ‘configurational’ (both of these take account of various other changes and that existing structures have a bearing). Thus in the field of organisational learning there is a two-fold challenge. One question is what changes will lead to organisational learning and adaption, the second question is whether the product of a new approach to organisational learning might lead to actual performance changes (Camps and Luna-Arocas, 2012).
Camps and Luna-Arocas (2012) argued that existing norms and culture have a major impact on the success or otherwise of new initiatives in the field of organisational learning. In effect, a focus on a particular initiative, or new approach, will tend to be less effective if no real attempt is made to address the wider culture. As will be discussed below, one problem in the adopted approach is that while this may represent an attempt to change the culture of the civil service it does not address the parallel issue of the mindset of Government Ministers. This is important given the importance (Taylor et al., 2010) of the need for failures to be acknowledged in an open manner. If this stage is omitted, or used to apportion blame, then it is unlikely that the organisation will absorb and develop new approaches.
This stresses the difficulty of how to link changes in approach to organisational learning to measurable outcomes. This has been an ongoing debate in the wider HRM literature (Janssens and Steyaert, 2009; Paauwe, 2009) both as to how such an evaluation can managed and the consequences, for the field of HRM, if the focus is on measurable organisational level outputs as opposed to culture and practice within the organisation (Devins and Smith, 2013).
Evaluation and Critique
The Civil Service review matches many of the criteria identified in the literature (Gold et al., 2013). There is a focus on wider organisational learning and development combined with an acknowledgement of the need for specific training in identified skills and competencies. In addition, the new approach is linked to planned changes in terms of pay, reward, promotion and career development. Thus in one sense it can be seen as setting out the base of a well structured training programme. However, one important strand is missing from the review. There is little mention of how the Civil Service interacts with Ministers or the wider political process (Hennessy, 1989). Where this theme is introduced it is as a complaint by ministers that the “culture can make it difficult for the Government to adapt swiftly to the needs of the day” (HM Government, 2012: 9). As such, the plan is framed as being about enabling the civil service to operate in a different way but does not address an important part of the pressures and constraints on the civil service – how ministers set and shape policy.
This can be briefly explored by looking at a single policy development in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Universal Credit is an attempt not just to bring together the full range of benefits paid to adults of working age, it also seeks to link this to fluctuations in earnings. At a purely technical level it requires the integration of a number of existing computing systems run by the DWP but also to create a real time link to the tax and earnings data. This challenge proved problematic for a number of the benefit reforms introduced by the previous Labour Government (Brewer et al., 2005).
To this complicated project management task should be added that the minister in charge had developed his ideas over a number of years and that the purpose was not a technical revision of the UK Benefits System but an ideological framing of the reasons for poverty and the solution. This belief has been challenged by a number of commentators as lacking a real evidence base (Slater, 2011). So Universal Credit has been delayed, seen cost overruns and it has been suggested that “UC incorporates just about every design feature that hasn’t worked in the course of the last 30 years. And it adds others” (Spicker, 2014). However, there appears to be little scope for the type of reflective learning suggested in the organisational learning literature when the policy is the creation of ministers with a very defensive mindset. The end result is the suggestion that “any learning is hampered by ministers” (BBC, 2014). This instance does not invalidate the approach to training proposed in the Civil Service Reform Plan, but it does suggest that the goal of improving project management and policy implementation is unlikely to be achieved when the focus is placed simply on one half (the civil service) of a complex relationship between a permanent administration and political governance.
In conclusion, this paper has reviewed the logic behind the relatively recent Civil Service Reform Plan and its attempt not just to use training and development to address skills gaps in the Civil Service but to change the overall internal culture (Gold et al., 2013). As such, it can be described as a process of organisational learning and development rather than an approach to training. In terms of the wider literature, the approach offers a good fit to the themes commonly identified although it takes little account of the problem of evaluating the impact of HR initiatives (Devins and Smith, 2013). However, as argued in the last section, the core problem is it concentrates on one half of the relationship between administration and political governance. As with the case of Universal Credit, the approach of Ministers can undermine policy implementation. In part, as not all policies are based on clear evidence, in part as the nature of the political process makes it hard for ministers to take responsibility if a key project is failing. Unless this too is addressed, then the goals of the Civil Service Reform Plan are unlikely to be achieved. In effect, the weakness lies in the understanding of the complexity of the organisation.
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