Public Administration CommitteeSupplementary written evidence submitted by Sir David Normington, First Civil Service Commissioner (CSR 28)

1. At my appearance before the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) on 13 February I was invited to submit an additional paper, expanding on how the Civil Service can tackle its skills deficits. In doing so I have also taken the opportunity to comment on the recent debate on the related issue of how “experts” can be recruited into Government.

2. The Civil Service Commission’s strong view is that the issues of leadership and skills are the keys to reforming the Civil Service, much more significant than the debate about who appoints Permanent Secretaries. In our view there is an urgent need:

to continue to develop more high quality leaders, able to set clear direction and inject the pace into implementation, which Ministers and Departments want and need. This will require a mixture of internal development and external recruitment. The Commission’s experience of external recruitment over the last five years is that it has been much more successful at Director level (ie two levels down from the top), enabling external recruits to develop their leadership skills in a Government setting before competing for the most senior jobs;

to conduct an audit of where the greatest skill needs (and gaps) are likely to arise over the next five years, so that this can inform both current development programmes and external recruitment. I recommended this in an internal report in 2008, when I was a Permanent Secretary. It is promised again in the Civil Service reform plan. It is important that it now happens; and:

to link any strategies for developments in leadership and skills to a pay and reward structure which incentivises people, whether from inside or outside the Civil Service, who have key skills and are successful in using them.

3. Many of these issues are touched on in the Civil Service reform plan. In the Commission’s view they need to be pursued with boldness and pace.

Tackling Immediate Skills Shortages

4. A lot of what goes wrong in Government is the result of failures of major programmes and projects to implement Government policy and/or weaknesses in managing effectively external contractors and agents to whom services and projects have been outsourced. There is an urgent need in Government for more project management capability and for more “commissioning” skills, ie in the awarding and managing of external contractors.

5. These are not new points, but past initiatives to remedy the deficits have not gone far enough. This is partly because they have been aimed at too low a level in the management structure and partly because they have focussed exclusively on training and development and not on the wider issues of pay, rewards and incentives described above. So, while the commitment in the Civil Service reform plan to a renewed effort on training in project skills is welcome, it needs to be linked to:

career ladders for project managers: project managers should be a specialist group in the Civil Service, like lawyers and statisticians, with their own grading structure and professional leadership? And, if this is a step too far, then at the very least project management and commissioning skills need to be recognised as an essential stepping stone to promotion;

pay structures which pay a “skills premium” to people with skills in shortage areas. At senior level for the most difficult projects, the premium will need to be substantial for it to make a difference;

incentives (recognition in career progression or end loaded pay packages and bonuses) which encourage people to stay and see the project through.

External Recruitment

6. In the short term it will also be necessary to go into the market to recruit these skills from other sectors. Indeed, in areas of serious skill shortage, it is likely there will always be a need to recruit, to some degree, from outside. In the Commission’s view this does require more flexibility than is possible under present pay constraints. This is not an argument for a general pay uplift, but a reinforcement of the case in the previous paragraph for:

a substantial skills premium (on top of basic pay) for senior project managers and those with commissioning skills; and

pay packages which provide rewards and bonuses for those who stay to complete projects successfully.

7. This can happen under existing pay arrangements. It was done very successfully for the Olympics, as the IFG noted in its recent report “Making the Games”. Highly experienced specialists were brought in for fixed term contracts that reflected their market value and which were structured to deliver a significant proportion of the total remuneration at the successful completion of the project. But our experience is that every case has to be argued in detail with the Treasury, putting some Departments off making the case at all and delaying recruitment of essential skills. If Government wants to tackle these skills deficits urgently, it will need a willingness—on a selective basis—to go into the market and compete for the best people. That is no guarantee, of course, that a project will succeed but it narrows the risk.

Recruiting Experts

8. Since appearing before the Committee, there has been a related debate in the media (prompted by speculation about the IPPR Comparative study of Civil Services in other countries which is being prepared for the Cabinet Office) about the recruitment of experts to Ministerial offices and Departments, who have specialist skills and detailed subject knowledge.

9. It is perfectly possible now under the Commission’s own Recruitment Principles to recruit experts to Departments quickly. If that is what Government wants to do, it can do that immediately through a variety of routes.

10. Where experts are clearly political appointees, recruited by the Minister, they should be brought in as special advisers. The only barrier to this is the Government’s self-imposed limit on the number of special advisers.

11. If the experts are to be recruited as civil servants, then there are three routes:

recruitment through fair and open competition, either to a permanent position or on a fixed term contract; this need not take more than six to 10 weeks and will normally be the best way of ensuring a proper search of the field of suitable candidates to secure the best possible candidate;

a time limited appointment without competition for up to two years in cases where there is an urgent business need or where there is in practice only one credible candidate with that particular expertise. At senior level this needs the Commission’s approval, but it can be given quickly (ie in a matter of days) where the business need is clear and urgent; and

a secondment, again for up to two years (in the Commission’s view interchange between civil Servants and business is a wholly positive thing).

12. Finally, it is also open to the Government to top up its skills on a temporary basis by using consultants. Again, the Government’s self-imposed restrictions on the use of consultants limits the availability of this route. But, used sparingly, it remains a useful additional way of increasing expertise in big projects. As we discussed at the Committee, it is important in such cases to ensure that consultants have an obligation to transfer their expertise to the Civil Service as part of their contract.

13. The Commission is ready to encourage and facilitate all these routes, as appropriate. No changes are necessary to current rules and procedures to make that possible. It is important, of course, that the recruitment of “experts” is not used as a way of recruiting special advisers in the guise of civil servants. Everyone appointed as a civil servant, permanent, temporary or on secondment must observe the Civil Service Code requirements of impartiality and objectivity.

March 2013

Prepared 5th September 2013