Last month, the UK Parliament dissolved until after a General Election on May 7th. Technically we have no Members of Parliament until then, prompting a jocular sign from London tube staff to urge the nation to “remain calm during this difficult time.” On the same day, the Government entered its pre-election or ‘purdah’ period, so civil servants are restricted from doing anything that uses public resources for party-political purposes. The state goes on and ministers remain responsible for their departments, but the Civil Service is waiting until a new Government is formed.
That new Government may come with its own thinking on Civil Service reform. Across Whitehall, government workers will find out after the election if the new administration wants to recalibrate an existing reform plan that was launched in 2012. That plan aimed to forge a Civil Service that is equipped to deal with the UK’s unprecedented set of concurrent challenges, including continued public spending reductions, evolving citizen expectations and disruptive technological shifts.
One of the overall reform plan’s central components is a distinct Capabilities Plan, which aims to improve how civil servants manage change; boost their commercial skills; upgrade their project management abilities; and modernise how they design services. Earlier this year, Deloitte UK worked with a think tank called GovernUp to explore whether that Capabilities Plan will be enough to support Civil Servants who can excel in the Government of 2020 and beyond.
Our report for GovernUp suggested that the Capabilities Plan – which is delivering some impressive achievements – should be refreshed and remain in place for the next five years to allow for stability. But we also argued that it needs to develop skills in the context of the challenges that the future will bring.
We proposed that the reform plan underplays the economic, societal and technological developments that are changing the environment in which the Civil Service operates. Those developments affect almost every dimension of a government, including its role as an employer that needs to manage its talent.
The relationship between employees and their organisations is changing rapidly. Globalisation is diffusing ideas and practices around the world; technology is allowing people to collaborate across distance in real time; shifts in mobility are making people freer to work when and where they want; social media is transforming the way people connect, share and build communities; educational trends are beginning to disrupt traditional routes to qualifications; and employers are coming alive to data analytics to inform employee strategies.
The Civil Service needs to act on these trends, for example by adapting to the shift away from 40-year linear careers as people work to a more personalised patchwork of jobs and projects that may well cross sectors.
Our report for GovernUp also considers the kinds of skills that the Capabilities Plan is nurturing. Drawing on US GovLab thinking, we suggested that governments increasingly need abilities such as agile integration – being able to design and deliver services through complex networks and across multiple channels, including digital. While the Capabilities Plan is focusing on individual skills such as digital, we believe that those skills need developing within a broader behavioural context that reflects the new world civil servants need to operate within.
Viewed this way, skills for the future of government include the ability to operate with quiet transparency; using social media as a means of building influence and motivating action; scanning the horizon to anticipate trends; being willing to fail small and fast while prototyping; and seeking contrarian thinking to help make services and programmes as robust as possible.
Ministers rely on the UK Civil Service to deliver their policy objectives and every UK citizen relies on it to run our country – so the skills and capability of civil servants matter to us all. Whatever the next administration decides on Civil Service reform, it should ask whether its plans will meet the needs of Government in 2020 and beyond.
1 The capabilities plan – 2014 annual refresh, Civil Service, 2014.
2 Tackling the skills gap, Deloitte LLP for GovernUp, 2015.
3 The open talent economy: people and work in a borderless workplace, Deloitte LLP, 2013.
4 The new government leader: mobilizing public leadership in disruptive times, GovLab for Deloitte University Press, 2013.
Mike Turley is the Vice Chairman and Public Sector Leader of Deloitte’s United Kingdom Firm