Cost-cutting and complacency are impacting the ability of the Civil Service to address future risks facing the UK. That’s the considered response given by the Institute of Risk Management (IRM) to a Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) inquiry addressing the future training needs of the civil service, the results of which have been published today in the detailed PASC report entitled ‘Developing Civil Service Skills: A Unified Approach’.
The PASC believes that gaps in Civil Service skills have caused very costly failures and that, without an honest appraisal of where weaknesses lie to enable real improvements, further failures are “unavoidable”. The Committee believes it’s essential that any central audit of Civil Service skills is both open and honest, while short-term presentational gains must not be given preference over long-term cost to the taxpayer.
“The Civil Service plays a central role in identifying, managing and mitigating risks facing the UK Government,” commented the IRM’s technical director Carolyn Williams. “From pandemics to cyber threats, terrorism and future energy security, in addition to the everyday risk of mismanagement and operational error, the demands placed on our public officials are extremely high. However, training of civil servants to deal with current and future risk demands is inconsistent across departments, with cuts and complacency hitting the central training provision.”
Emboldening that theme, Williams continued: “The IRM believes that formal, central recognition of the value of risk management training is a vital first step in ensuring civil servants are equipped to respond to future threats. The next Government must adopt a co-ordinated approach to training and development in order to build the risk management capabilities of our civil servants.”
By March 2014, Office of National Statistics figures showed there was a total of 439,000 civil servants across the UK, 17% fewer than in 2010. “Staff cuts are impacting the retention of expert senior staff and, with this, institutional knowledge is being lost,” asserted Williams.
“More needs to be done to both anticipate future challenges and to build ‘corporate memory’ of both successful and unsuccessful risk management strategies such that valuable lessons are learned for the future. When institutional memory goes, ‘optimism bias’ tends to fill the gap. Optimism is no way to future-proof the UK’s Civil Service against threats or equip it to make the most of available opportunities.”
Written evidence to the PASC
The IRM’s written evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee makes the following recommendations:
*Risk management is too often only prioritised in departments and agencies explicitly charged with compliance. All departments should have an effective risk management strategy overseen by one or more designated staff
*Departments need to enhance and hasten both their knowledge of risk management and the embedding of an organisation-wide risk culture. The IRM recommends that the Civil Service’s Capabilities Plan for 2015-2016 should include a new specific risk management competency at relevant levels of seniority
*Staff retention in the face of reduced Government spending has been problematic, and particularly so at specialist levels. Ministers need access to expertise such that they can risk manage uncertainty, major projects and future strategy. Departments need to invest in the training of those ‘rising up the ranks’, fast streamers and junior specialists
*Civil servants as far afield as Scotland, Australia and Denmark report that one of the benefits of ‘default’ coalition Governments is that civil servants are equipped, trained and expected to scrutinise new policy proposals and legislation to identify risks, recommend how to manage them and ensure any proposals put forward are fit for purpose. The IRM suggests a similar culture of training in risk review would help ministers avoid pressure to make knee-jerk or ‘sticking plaster’ announcements which require officials to work backwards in order to deliver
*The Financial Reporting Council’s revised Corporate Governance Code now requires companies to ‘robustly assess’ the main risks facing their business and explain how they’re being managed and/or mitigated. The IRM suggests that Government departments should be aspiring to the same levels of operational efficiency.
The full IRM written submission can be viewed here
Comment from the PASC Chairman
Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the PASC, said: “With the continued focus on best value tendering and efficiently maximising severely constrained resources, it’s ever more essential that the Civil Service has the skills to manage and negotiate on an equal basis with the wide range of players that now deliver public services and major infrastructure projects. The very kinds of efficiencies and excellence that we are trying to build into project and service delivery must exist within the Civil Service itself to realise these goals. Short-term presentational gains and savings are a false economy if key skills are not developed, or existing skills that were expensively acquired are lost.”
Jenkin concluded: “Conventional business training cannot address the unique challenges faced in the public sector. The new Civil Service Leadership Academy needs to provide a unique focus on the key skills – and complementary and supportive skills across Whitehall – required by a modern Civil Service if it is to deliver on its leaders’ vision.”