Jerry Arnott, former chief executive, Civil Service Learning, UK: Exclusive Interview
Jerry Arnott led the biggest UK government training consolidation programme in modern history. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor how he did it – and what he should have done differently
“Be true to self.” That’s the message Jerry Arnott, in his work as an executive coach, gives to many clients. “If people are true to self, they will make the most of their potential; they won’t try and do something that they’re not well-equipped to do; they won’t overstretch themselves; and they will build on their strengths as individuals.”
Arnott has established training and development structures at several private sector organisations. But the most complex task of his career, he says, was developing a new central training offer for the whole UK civil service – Civil Service Learning (CSL). Fully operational since April 2012, CSL buys and supplies generic skills training for the entire civil service, replacing a system under which individual departments procured their own. The reform, he says, saves the government £100m a year thanks to economies of scale, reduced duplication and a shift to digital training.
Arnott, who retired from government last October after seven years in the civil service, says his approach in Whitehall combined ambition with realism: “If I look to my days in the civil service, what I hope I was able to contribute was a sense of reality, but also a sense of what’s achievable. The fact that we set Civil Service Learning up, with many people saying: ‘You won’t be able to do that’; the fact that we created something that was better than what existed before. Some may argue against that, but the majority wouldn’t; there’s far more on offer there than there was before, far greater value for money.”
How it all began
The idea of creating a single, civil service-wide training provider first came up during a meeting in May 2009, Arnott says. Gill Rider, then head of the HR profession, “thought that we needed to do something about transforming HR across the civil service. The warning clouds were out there in terms of [financial] constraints coming down on the civil service, and a group of us said: ‘Okay, what can we do to begin to integrate and create a more professional HR service across the civil service?’”
Nine months later, the Conservative MP Francis Maude assumed the role of Cabinet Office minister and took a keen interest in civil service reform. The 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan had a strong focus on skills and capabilities – an agenda that was “helpful and supportive” in getting CSL off the ground, Arnott recalls. In particular, Maude’s reforms called for improvements in civil service leadership, programme management, commercial skills and digital skills. That, Arnott says, “really focused the mind of everyone, particularly at the top end, because all permanent secretaries were held accountable from then on to ensure they were doing something visibly against those four priorities.”
How they did it
To cut costs whilst improving the training offer in these key fields, Arnott explains, he and his team established CSL and commissioned an online training hub; departments were then required to buy all their non-sector specific training via this new portal. The contract to run the hub went to Capita, which was tasked with finding subcontractors to deliver the training specified by CSL.
“The decision to outsource design and delivery was the right one,” says Arnott. “It saved us hundreds of millions of pounds, and gave us access to a better quality of provision”. But he’s keen to stress that “the agenda itself – understanding today’s needs and tomorrow’s future priorities – is still very much held in-house, and it was always critical for me that we did not in anyway whatsoever outsource any of that.” CSL spent “thousands of hours” talking to departments about their training needs, Arnott says – something that was crucial to the project’s success.
Half the CSL team, Arnott explains, is made up of “learning and development consultants who work with departments on a daily basis and bring the needs back to Capita to make sure the right solutions are in place”. The other half comprises officials “with diverse backgrounds: communications specialists, because of the communications and marketing aspect of CSL; IT specialists, because we were setting up a new website; finance specialists and commercial specialists to work with the marketplace.”
Arnott points out that the final decision on which smaller suppliers Capita uses to deliver training “remains with the civil service.” He’d occasionally reject Capita’s choice of subcontractor, but “probably 90% of the time, we’d go with whoever comes through the tender process.”
Trying to bring about radical change is always difficult – and CSL certainly did represent fundamental change, with departments losing both HR staff and their ability to choose training providers. “We were always going to have pockets of resistance,” Arnott says. But he was surprised at the attitude of some top officials when it came to staff development: “The biggest frustration I had was around the senior civil service community not accepting the importance of learning and capability. Not all, but certainly some of our leaders were just paying lip service to it, and didn’t really commit towards investing in capabilities with their staff.”
To get top officials on board, Arnott says, “we needed something to grab their attention.” So he and his team commissioned a series of “high-energy, high-impact” workshops about change leadership skills. “We chose a provider who I knew well, and who I knew would do a good job, and some of the permanent secretaries and all their DGs attended the workshops, which went down extremely well.” While Arnott says that this “was particularly helpful in building credibility for CSL” amongst those levels, he is clear that more work remains. “The challenge now for my successor Hilary Spencer is to really look at how to embed it across departments, to get departments to promote it more, to actively engage more and more people – particularly in the senior civil service ranks – in using the products.”
Another problem lay within the Cabinet Office, Arnott says. While Maude’s agenda was helpful at the start, “once we’d set things up, he personally was probably not so interested in what Civil Service Learning was up to, but some of the people around him retained an interest and formed impressions and opinions that things weren’t working well, as CSL was being established, which was contrary to the reality and the facts. There were people who worked partly in Maude’s office but also some senior officials in the Cabinet Office as well. This unfounded criticism was unhelpful and, at times, I would be spinning around in circles with feedback from the Cabinet Office.” To dispel the rumours, Arnott says, he and his team frequently had “to put together responses and write papers with evidence countering the gossip. Frankly it was unnecessary, but these things happen.”
If he had his time again, Arnott says, he “would spend more time focusing upwards on the permanent secretaries and the Cabinet Office from the start.” He deliberately concentrated on talking to departmental HR directors – “the people who were being charged with actually making this happen” – but wishes he’d focused more on winning over the people “above their heads”. If he’d been “more forceful in the early days in making sure that our messages were clearly heard and understood as to the implications for departments of embracing Civil Service Learning”, he believes, he’d have been more successful in quashing the rumours and gaining greater support among permanent secretaries.
The journey ahead
me of the resistance may have represented regret at the abolition of the National School of Government (NSG) – a civil service provider of leadership training closed because, Arnott explains, “it wasn’t making sense commercially.” With it, the civil service lost a luxurious base for residential courses and, more importantly, “the international prestige that having a national school provides – most other countries in the Western world have something akin to a national school.”
While he’s clear that closing down the NSG was the right call, Arnott believes it may soon be time to re-establish a prestigious HQ for civil service training. “It’s not for me to make that decision and nothing may happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if something similar – an institute or academy, whatever label they want to use – that will have bricks and mortar attached, was recreated within the next few years that restored the whole prestige need.” Regaining prestige, he adds, would indeed “be the main reason, because in my time we got a lot of foreign delegations knocking on our doors, wanting to know about CSL and what we’d been doing – but every time, they’d ask: ‘What’s happened to the NSG?’”
Meanwhile, Arnott believes, CSL must focus on three areas. He believes there should be “greater emphasis placed on developing deep professional expertise in the disciplines across the civil service; greater investment in the areas of generic capability, to broaden people’s overall capability to progress careers; and continuous investment in business-specific skills.”
Arnott hopes the civil service will embrace learning and seek to “constantly develop capability”. The organisation as a whole “does not have a good track record when it comes to that”, but it’s the only way to stay ahead of the game: “There’s evidence all over the world about that. Successful corporations rely upon being able to renew; being able to capture knowledge and pass that learning around. The civil service as an entity has never done that. Departments may have done it, here and there, but not the entire civil service.”
His message for the civil service leadership today? “Build on the foundation that CSL has created; position learning and capabilities as central to the future success of the civil service, and recognise that this will require investment both of time and commitment to promote it actively and engage people in learning.”
As for Arnott, he’s enjoying his release – after 20 years – from the four-hour daily slog of commuting into the capital from South-East Kent. But he’s not ready to hang up his coaching shoes just yet, and is doing “consulting work in the field of organisational development, working with other organisations looking to transform the way they build skills, knowledge and capabilities.” He also sits on the board of an education charity, and works as a lecturer at a business school in Kent. He does keep an eye on events in civil service training, he says, and will be “watching from afar.” But his new roles, his family and his garden keep him pretty busy: the bottom of his garden in England’s most south-easterly toe, it seems, is quite close enough to Whitehall for Arnott’s liking.