Beyond the gifted amateur: building a professional workforce

By on 15/05/2020 | Updated on 27/01/2022

Civil services need both the specialist professional expertise to deliver for ministers, and the authority to advise ministers on what is deliverable. At the Global Government Summit, top officials from 17 countries debated how civil services can attract, develop and manage the highly skilled workforces required to address our huge public policy challenges. Matt Ross reports

“You can do policy with intellect, but delivery needs experience,” said John Manzoni. “How do you create a civil service with both the intellect to solve a problem, and the experience to drive it to execution?”

Manzoni, then Chief Executive of the UK’s civil service, was arguing that the “cult of the gifted amateur; of highly-intelligent generalists” has, over decades, weakened the civil service’s hands-on skills in managing projects, rebuilding services and applying new technologies. And the picture’s not so different across the English Channel, added Paul Huijts, Secretary-General of the Netherlands’ Ministry of General Affairs in the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office. “Traditionally, intellectual competence and policymaking was way over-rated compared to a knowledge of policy execution,” he said. “Working in an agency and gaining experience of getting things done was always rated a grade lower than the same work in a policy department.”

When John Manzoni (left) became Chief Exec of the UK civil service in 2014, he began developing technical skills by creating professional networks in fields such as technology and HR, each led by senior leaders and supported by central functions

Yet civil services urgently need specialist technical and professional skills – not only to deliver on the pledges made by ministers, but also to provide expert, evidence-based advice on what can realistically be pledged. As another delegate pointed out, elected leaders are constantly tempted to make big offers to their electorates: “Politicians all say they want to under-promise and over-deliver; the fact is that they all over-promise and under-deliver,” they said. “They know they shouldn’t, but it’s that or the exit.” The result, commented Mikael Pryadilnikov – Deputy Director of the Analytic Center for the Russian Government – is that ministers can “end up in a vicious circle, where they blame civil servants and the system” for the failure to realise goals that were always too numerous or ambitious to be deliverable.

The skills to deliver

At the Global Government Forum, held in Singapore earlier this year, top civil servants from 17 countries were debating how governments can develop the technical and specialist capabilities required to address today’s social, economic and environmental challenges. Civil services need to plug widely-recognised gaps in fields such as project management, digital and procurement – and a range of new requirements are coming down the tracks, delegates commented.

In the technology field, commented one delegate, “the next battleground is around data science rather than digital.” There’s also a need for stronger user-oriented design skills, added Pryadilnikov. And Manzoni pointed out that the public sector has quite unique challenges in digital development: “Government is a big, complex, old legacy system,” he said. “It’s one thing to build Amazon; it’s quite another to take a legacy system and turn it into Amazon.”

Since taking the Chief Exec’s job in 2014, Manzoni explained, he’s worked to develop these technical skills by “driving a matrix across the vertical silos of government” – creating professional networks in fields such as technology, HR and property, each led by senior leaders and supported by central functions. These functions build cross-government strategies, provide direct support to departments, strengthen personnel development, and set standards to harmonise and improve working practices.

Presenting the realities

As well as bolstering the civil service’s delivery capabilities, Manzoni continued, these networks are improving policymaking by fostering “much more realistic conversations about how particular policy outcomes could be achieved” – thus both influencing policy design, and inviting ministers to make hard choices around prioritisation. “We can be a mirror at the centre, presenting to the political system the realities around the promises that it’s made,” he said.

The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, commented its President Suma Chakrabarti, has improved both policymaking and operations by bringing economists into project teams at an early stage. “They used to be used at the end, as ‘assembly line checking’,” he explained. “But putting them into multi-disciplinary teams to help design the process and structure projects has proved to be a godsend.”

Paul Huijts says that in the Netherlands, elected leaders have begun to recognise the importance of valuing delivery expertise

In the Netherlands, added Huijts, elected leaders have begun to recognise the importance of valuing delivery expertise. “A lot of ministers have had to step down over recent decades, and never because of policy; always because of policy execution,” he commented. So a ministerial committee on government execution has been established to improve delivery plans and skills.

Managing a specialist workforce

Illustrating how the UK’s functions operate in practice, Kevin Cunnington – the former head of the Government Digital Service (GDS), now working as the Director General of the UK’s International Government Service – described how the 17,000-strong Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) profession has evolved. “Digital transformation isn’t about digital; it’s about people and culture,” he said, detailing how GDS created working environments and career pathways to attract and retain digital professionals.

Kevin Cunnington explains that the Government Digital Service has one of the UK civil service’s most ethnically diverse workforces, and a gender-balanced management team

One key aspect of this work, he continued, was the categorisation of DDaT staff into 37 different roles, each with a set of competencies and promotion criteria. Harmonising DDaT roles and pay scales throughout the civil service, he said, made it far easier to redeploy staff across government. And it had an added bonus: by removing departments’ ability to set salaries for digital specialists, it prevented them from using higher pay offers to recruit each other’s staff.

Kevin Cunnington presentation slide

Listing and categorising the government’s DDAT workforce enabled Cunnington to identify skills gaps, he continued: “Then I can give people recruiting for those roles more pay flexibility, or we can gear our training programmes to cover those skills.” Meanwhile the government made a huge investment in digital training, setting up GDS Academies that have taught more than 10,000 officials over five years. Importantly, 80% of Academy students aren’t DDAT staff, but other professionals who need to understand digital technologies and techniques: there are courses on ‘Agile’ project management for policymakers, operational staff and managers, for example.

Kevin Cunnington presentation slide

Separately, GDS set up a DDaT ‘Fast Stream’ four-year graduate training programme. “And I particularly like the DDaT apprenticeship,” added Cunnington. “We’ve opened it up to everybody in the civil service, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said to me: ‘I’ve been working in the civil service for 20 years, but I applied to go on your apprenticeship programme and I absolutely loved it. I’ve finally found the job I want’.”

GDS has also invested in its offices, moving its HQ to Whitechapel – close to the City of London and the tech cluster of Shoreditch – to ease recruitment from the private sector. And finally, the unit’s commitment to diversity has also helped boost applications and retention: GDS has one of the civil service’s most ethnically diverse workforces, and a gender-balanced management team. “The software industry comprises about 80% men,” Cunnington comments. “GDS is 44% women, so it’s an entirely different kind of place to work – and that attracts more women to work in GDS and the civil service.”

Recruiting with purpose

Government has one further advantage in recruiting young professionals, commented Nicola Villa, Senior Vice President for Strategic Growth and Global Lead at knowledge partner Mastercard. “The brightest young millennials are very interested in purpose, and that’s what government can offer them,” he said. In Mastercard’s work to establish an AI centre with one government, he added, he’s found that many digital PhDs are keen to “work in the public sector, developing solutions for social purposes.”

According to Mastercard’s Nicola Villa (centre), the brightest young millennials are very interested in purpose, and that’s what government can offer them

Portugal has put this sense of public service at the heart of its efforts to boost staff morale and retention, explained Catarina Maria Romão Gonçalves, Deputy General Secretary of the country’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers – which, she explained, aims “to be the General Secretariat of the Centre of Government”. In a bid to build a sense of common identity and shared purpose, her team worked with staff across government to characterise each department and agency as a part of the human body: “We’re determined to have every department define its place in the organisation,” she explained. “The audit people, for example, are the liver!”

Departmental staff were then assisted to choose a colour, a characteristic and a slogan, which were used to build their corporate identities. And meanwhile, Gonçalves’ team used the engagement exercise to map procedures and interactions across government – stripping out duplication and simplifying processes.

Portugal has put a sense of public service at the heart of its efforts to boost staff morale and retention, explains Catarina Maria Romão Gonçalves

Some staff were initially recalcitrant, she said: “It’s difficult to get the tech and finance people and the engineers doing abstract thinking.” But by the end of the process, each organisation’s staff had a much better understanding of its ethos and culture, its role in government, and its relationship to other departments. And the result was a major change in departments’ interactions: previously “there was a huge problem: departments that didn’t talk to each other; leaders who didn’t talk,” she said. “Now we have a lot of love for each other, and the soft skills to move forward.”

Fishing in a bigger pond

So civil services have developed many ways of attracting and developing specialist workforces – but recruiting and retaining technical professionals at very senior levels presents particular obstacles. “We find it incredibly difficult to hire people coming out of banking or telecommunications who have the skills in transformation that we’re looking for,” said Cunnington. In the private sector, commented one delegate, these people can often earn five times the civil service’s offer. In response to such challenges, said Leo Yip, the Singapore Civil Service’s Head, his country has established a “flexible salary framework for recruiting specialists with deep skills.”

When senior leaders do come in from business, they can struggle to acclimatise to civil service cultures, commented Katherine Jones, Deputy Secretary of Australia’s Department of Finance. “You need to learn how to navigate your way through decision-making and delivery in government, and I don’t think we do enough to ease that transition – particularly for people from industries like IT, where it’s more dynamic, more innovative and less hierarchical,” she commented. “There’s no programme put around people to help them acculturate.”

In Singapore, responded Yip, leaders have tried to ditch the expectation that external recruits should “fit in and adjust – think like me; act like me – because that’s counter-productive. The very reason we bring these people in is to gain a new set of perspectives.” As a result, recruiters have moved to “design the job around the person,” amending responsibilities and goals to create “roles that harness the strengths that external recruits bring in.”

In some countries, lobbying rules present another barrier: senior leaders leaving government, noted one delegate, may be barred from speaking to civil servants for long periods afterwards – “but we don’t pay them enough to leave them out of work for years!” And many civil service pension schemes heavily penalise those who move in and out of the civil service.

Yet improving permeability is important to boosting specialist skills. “We recognise this continuing cross-flow as essential not just to attracting talent, but also to giving our people varied experiences,” said Yip. Singapore gives civil servants unpaid leave to join business or launch start-ups – and many come back, having added private sector disciplines and skills to their knowledge of how to operate in government.  

Look to the leaders

Despite all the challenges around building specialist skills and recruiting externally, argued Huijts, civil services have made strong progress in recent years – creating a much more open, collaborative culture. “If I compare the attitude of civil servants when I first joined and now, there is a vast change in attitudes,” he said. And when leaders work closely across departmental boundaries, said Catherine Blewett, Deputy Clerk of Canada’s Privy Council, others follow. Tackling one recent cross-government challenge, she recalled, “our most senior leadership collaborated, modelling the behaviour – and throughout the organisations, everyone started to get the hint.”

Catherine Blewett says that when leaders work closely across departmental boundaries, others follow

Blewett’s anecdote illustrated Manzoni’s view that, as he put it, “collaboration is behavioural, not structural – because however you organise yourself, you’re going to run into boundaries and want to cross them.” Absolutely, agreed Huijts: “You can reorganise for an eternity, but today’s problems are so complex and multi-sided that no organisation can fit around this multitude of issues. So you have to be able to reorganise for every issue that’s on the table – and that’s all about mindset.”

“Big people go up and collaborate, but small people go down and protect – and our public service structures condition people into that behaviour,” concluded Manzoni. “There are too many people going down and protecting. We need to encourage people to be more confident as leaders to cross the boundaries.”

This is part three of our report on the 2020 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore at the end of January ­– before COVID-19 spread beyond the Far East, and Sir John Manzoni stepped down as Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service. While the event is held under the Chatham House Rule, we ask delegates to approve quotes for use in these reports – enabling us to share civil service leaders’ key messages and perspectives with our readers.

Part one covered the debate on addressing inequality. Part two explored how to address the barriers to interdepartmental collaboration, enabling governments to achieve their wider goals. And the fourth and final part explored the way forward on civil service reform.

A list of the Global Government Summit 2020 attendees can be found here.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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