Unleashing the untapped talent in the Civil Service

Wynne Parry on why there is a need to up-skill middle managers in the Civil Service 

One very clear message from the latest Civil Service People Survey is that employers need to up their game in developing the talent at their disposal. Headline figures disguise a more varied picture beneath but no one can be content that, as TJ reports, half of survey respondents state they are not satisfied that their employer meets their learning aspirations.

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In fact, there has been a very gradual year on year improvement on the global learning and development metric since a huge dip in 2010, but we are far from where we should be. The civil service has a strong record in responding to new and unforeseen challenges, but high public expectations – and the Government’s drive for reduced expenditure – means that change continues apace. New ways of working require diverse skills, with a particular focus on digital and commercial.

Given the sheer size of these challenges, you might expect to see an increased focus on staff development. But as yet, it is not resonating with employees. We think there are two major factors to explain why this is the case.

First of all, the Government does too much. John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service, has publicly stated that civil servants do 30 per cent more work than the available resources can manage. He is not alone in drawing this conclusion. Both the Institute for Government and Amyas Morse, Head of the National Audit Office, have called publically for the Government to learn to prioritise. Both pronouncements preceded the vote for Brexit, a decision that will require massive civil service attention in coming years and clear direction from Ministers which has so far not been forthcoming

The FDA, the union representing senior managers and professional in public service, argues that the Government needs to match its commitments to the resources available and ensure that civil servants have both the capacity and capability to successfully meet Government priorities. Until this happens, the space and time to allow civil servants to give appropriate focus to their own and their team’s personal development is simply not there.

The second factor is that the needs of middle managers are woefully overlooked. Their contribution is fundamental to the success of their teams and to the delivery of public services, yet in the 2015 People Survey less than half reported that there are either opportunities for them to progress their career, or that they are able to access learning opportunities that help them to develop necessary skills.

In the meantime, employers are spending millions of pounds hiring external candidates to fill skills gaps, at pay rates that far exceed the salaries paid to employees.

Across the public sector there is a growing expectation for middle managers to connect the strategic goals of their organisation to the tactical responsibilities of employees. The reality is that 50 to 70 per cent of a workforce reports to a middle manager rather than a senior leader, therefore our leaders in middle management set the tone for the vast majority of employees within the civil service. Failure to recognise this reality will erode morale, impacting badly on departments, the Government and the public alike.

It’s easier to develop the workforce we already have then to continually rebuild it. This preserves institutional memory and knowledge whilst increasing engagement and productivity, when employees can see their employer taking a vested interest in their career development.

We need to unleash the untapped talent that exists. This is why the FDA took the decision to introduce a new section devoted entirely to middle managers – Keystone – with a dedicated personal development programme named Keyskills. It is an unusual proposition for a trade union, allowing members access to a wide range of specially-designed masterclasses and workshops so they can maximise their career potential.

A confident, engaged civil service leads to improved policy and delivery. There should be a real public interest in how we can make the most of the potential of every civil servant.

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