Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Philip Virgo (CSR 19)

1. I recently retired after approximately forty years working on change programmes, investment, project and programme appraisal and monitoring and policy studies related to the use of new technologies to better serve society—both public and private sector. This submission does not address any of the questions but suggests the enquiry also needs to look at the skills and professional development of Civil Servants.

2. Forty years ago, at the time of the Fulton Report, it was said the UK had one of the best educated but least trained public services in the world. The subsequent attempts to institutionalise skills development programmes have been patchy and unstained. We are living with the consequences.

3. Whatever changes are made to the role and structure of the Civil Service, they will fail to produce the results expected unless and until the recommendations for training and professional development that were made in the Fulton Report are implemented—updated as necessary to cover evolving skills needs over recent decades.

4. To pick an area where officials were once thought to be skilled: few, if any, in most departments today have received practical training or supervised experience in the assembly, testing and analysis of evidence to develop or review a policy proposal, or to plan or monitor its implementation. An Oxbridge style education, developing the skills to rapidly assemble and defend a briefing, plus the occasional short course, is assumed to be sufficient to enable them to acquire the other skills they need by a process of osmosis.

5. Hence the vulnerability of Civil Servants, like their political masters, to collective delusions, alias “big ideas”. One example might be the “self evident need” for a national patient record available on-line to almost any medical practitioner, which is also secure, reliable and up-to-date. Another is the belief that PFIs specified and tendered by those without demonstrable practical experience of delivery can be anything other than an expensive form of hire purchase.

6. Back in 1973, (when I joined the team to produce a computer development strategy for the “about to be formed “Regional Water Authorities” under a Mintech strategic planning contracts), I was dismayed that the official assigned to help with inputs from the Department of the Environment appeared unwilling to provide back-up to the policy documents I was expected to work from. In particular I wanted the analyses of what the new Authorities were expected to look like, based on the functions they would be taking over.

7. I therefore collected IMTA Municipal Year Books, River Board and Nature Conservancy Accounts etc. etc. and assembled national totals and authority averages to draft a model of an average Regional Water Authority. I then obtained appointments with the Treasurers of a Nature Conservancy, Water Company and a joint Water and Sewerage Board to review what I had done. They were unexpectedly helpful and also briefed me on how different authorities rigged their returns so as to determine their positions in the league tables or bid for extra resources. That enabled me to adjust accordingly. I then went back to the Department and asked if my analyses tallied with their figures. I was told they looked reasonable. A year later I saw my figures in a ministerial briefing as the authoritative departmental figures.

8. I have regularly had similar experiences over the subsequent forty years. The refusal to answer questions, including with regard to business cases or impact assessments, nearly always masks ignorance, not conspiracy.

9. That is sad because so many of the best of my peers at University, with whom I struggled to keep up in joint tutorials or late night arguments, went into the Civil Service. More-over its intake is still, by and large, significantly more intelligent and better educated, albeit more risk averse, than those who join the City, major law firms, accounting practices, consultancies, business or industry. But the latter then invest heavily in training and professional development.

10. My conclusion is that this enquiry needs to ask serious questions about the skills and training given to Civil Servants to enable them to do their current roles and also about the routines for the continuous professional development that will be necessary to enable them to handle the waves of change over recent years to come.

11. At the simplest level: how many accounting officers have an accounting qualification of any type (financial or management)?

12. How many departments have any professionally qualified staff looking after the career development of their staff and their current or future skills needs?

13. But it is not just the specialists who lack the specialist skills of their peers in industry. The generalists need the equivalent of what my peers learned at London Business School, particularly the basic “professional” skills necessary to enable us to spot bullshit across every discipline we were likely to face.

14. Previous the Civil service training programmes may have been deficient but there is also a risk that they have now be demolished with no effective replacement. The theoretical needs analyses of recent years were overtaken by structural change before they were used and the Civil Service Learning framework appears to have led to a collapse of delivery with a “gateway” routine that is said make it almost impossible to obtain training when and where needed, unless it happens to be covered by one of the standard on-line modules.

15. If that is correct, then situation is also a tragic comment on the lack of procurement skills of central government. The savings, if any, will have been achieved at the expense of in-house training and career development—presumably leading to further outsourcing , including to those employing individuals from overseas with impressive credentials may well be worth no more than the paper on which they are no longer printed.

January 2013

Prepared 5th September 2013