What is the civil service doing to improve staff training?

Four years on from a major overhaul of Whitehall’s learning and development programme, Civil Service Learning is embarking on another big shake-up. 

Hilary Spencer from the heart of the Home Office, where her team of officials is currently putting the finishing touches to an ambitious revamp of the civil service-wide training programme she oversees.
Her message to those still sceptical about CSL is simple: “We want to support you to do your job in the best way you possibly can, and to help you develop your future.”

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Spencer, who took over the role in 2014, says she is “passionate about education and development”. And, having served in key roles at the Department for Education, she seemed a natural fit for a post which, at its heart, is about trying to unlock the potential of civil servants. But she’s also interested in how plans dreamed up in Whitehall can play out on the frontline, so in 2013 she decided to pile a bit more onto her plate by taking up a position as chair of the academy council at a Lambeth free school.

“I really wanted to sort of get back to my roots a bit more in terms of understanding the nuts and bolts of what was really going on in a classroom, and in creating opportunities for kids through the really excellent education that we offer them.
“The school is in Lambeth North, and that’s where I lived when I first came to London, and it’s where my church is. So there’s a personal, geographical connection for me to this particular area. And the ethos that we have of encouraging every single child to achieve their potential and go on to a career with prospects is, for me, a really deeply held personal belief. It is something we should invest time and energy in.”
Spencer – who also juggles the pretty big responsibility of being the mum of a two-year-old – has managed to keep up her involvement with the free school since joining CSL. And her passion for education clearly spills over into her day job, where she says she is motivated by a “real sense of possibility and excitement.”
Like most of government during the last five years, training and development for civil servants has not been spared from ministers’ drive to rein in spending. 
CSL was introduced in 2012 to try and provide a cost-effective one-stop-shop for departments looking to get hold of courses for their staff, for the first time bringing in a centralised system for buying training to make better use of government’s combined purchasing power.
The Cabinet Office estimates that the new system has saved more than £80m on training and development spending since 2012, ending duplication and putting a stop to departments buying courses directly from suppliers, often at wildly varying rates.
However, CSL’s stated aims go beyond mere efficiency, with the move also intended to provide much more consistent training for officials by creating a core curriculum for those skills common across Whitehall, and extending the reach of training and development programmes that have traditionally tended to be focused around the most senior grades.
But CSL has not been without its critics. The arrival of the new system coincided with the scrapping of a dedicated (albeit costly) National School of Government in Ascot, leading MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) to warn about a loss of prestige and a potential over-reliance on decidedly shallower e-learning.
Unions meanwhile told the committee that they felt the curriculum was too narrowly focused on generic skills at the expense of specialist training, while, in a 2014 public hearing that seemed to imply some dissatisfaction with CSL at the top of Whitehall, then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude rated the training programme a “six-ish” out of 10. Spencer herself conceded at the same session that online learning remained a love-it-or-hate-it, “Marmitey” component of the scheme.
An overhaul of the contracts for Civil Service Learning is now underway, and what Spencer calls “phase two” of the scheme set to launch in early March – the CSL director is adamant that the team has learnt “a lot” from how the scheme has played out over the last few years.
“What we want to do in this next phase is make sure that the learning we have on offer is delivered by people who are best in class and experts in their areas,” she says.
“We want learning which properly reflects the context in which civil servants are operating, so that it has some elements of being tailored and personalised to what civil servants want to learn, and how they want to learn it. We want to make sure that we are properly able to draw on the expertise across the learning and development sector, and within the civil service, to provide a really high-quality offer.”
Under the current CSL deal, departments buy training for staff through a single system overseen by Capita, which sub-contracts courses from a range of smaller suppliers.
However, the Cabinet Office announced at the end of last year that when the £250m contract comes to an end in March, it will be split into four separate lots with different groups of suppliers focused on specific training needs.
The first two lots have been awarded to a consortium led by Korn Ferry Hay Group, which will head up work on senior civil service training, and to a group led by KPMG, who will develop the core curriculum for skills common across Whitehall.
As CSL prepares to move into its next phase, Spencer’s natural optimism shines through. “I honestly think we [in the civil service] do some of the most important work there is. And I think we’ve got some fantastic people who pour their heart and soul into what we’re doing. A big thing which motivates me is being surrounded by some of those people in my working life.”
And, alongside Spencer’s enthusiasm, there’s clearly a hard-headed recognition of just how important good training and development will be as Whitehall continues to grapple with ministers’ commitment to trying to get more for less.
“It’s an oldie but a goodie: people are our greatest asset. I think in terms of us delivering really high quality public services, both now and in the future, we really, really need to make sure that we support, develop, maintain, and motivate our people to perform in the best way they possibly can.”


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