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Specialists in demand across government

21 July: The National Audit Office has issued a positive report on the progress being made to develop specialist skills within the civil service.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has issued a report looking at how the cross-government functions established by the civil service to foster specialist skills, and the related civil service professions, have progressed since 2017. The review focuses on four areas: Commercial, Digital, Finance and Project Delivery.

The NAO looked into the Cabinet Office’s oversight responsibility for the activities and reporting of these cross-government functions, progress by functions in developing specialist skills, and areas where functions need to develop further.

By promoting better reporting by the functions and professions, the Cabinet Office can evaluate each function’s performance and effectiveness. Unfortunately, qualitative data is not always available or is inconsistent, and so the impact and benefits of cross-government capability are not always measurable. 

Pay can be a major issue. Functions and departments are allowed to exercise some pay flexibility, which can be necessary to obtain staff with the necessary skills for highly specialised roles. Unfortunately, this flexibility can also lead to members of a profession in limited supply being able to move to a comparable post in another department for a substantial increase in pay, leading to high staff turnover in some areas. For example, pay disparities within the senior civil servant grade (SCS1/1A) gave rise to a difference of £56,000 between salaries at the 10th and 90thpercentiles in 2018.

So that a function is seen as part of a department’s everyday work more needs to be done to improve the capability and capacity plans of the professions. This will only be achieved if departments value the specialist skills and embed them in their business planning. The quality of the partnership between profession and department business varies widely.

The NAO says more could be done to fully exploit the knowledge and insights that exist in cross-government functions so that cross-cutting issues can be identified and resolved. Unfortunately, poor cross-departmental data and a historic lack of coordination across functions mean the full benefit of learning from good practice is not always achieved. 

Additionally, the report recommends that functional expertise should be used to inform spending plans put forward by departments to HM Treasury. Most single department plans refer to the four functions reviewed but fewer than half fully or largely meet the Cabinet Office guidance in this respect, with one department’s plans making no mention of functions at all.

Commenting on the report Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, said: “Government needs a wide range of specialists if it is to operate effectively, and cross-government functions and professions within the civil service are proving to be useful in developing skills, recruiting, training and in the sharing of best practice. The National Audit Office shines a spotlight on some of the positive outcomes that can be achieved where real investment is made in developing and supporting staff.”

“Despite the generally positive tone of the report, significant improvements are still needed to get the best out of the civil service. Better data is required to monitor progress, and more work is needed to embed the work of functions into departmental activities and operations. 

“Maximising the benefit that specialists bring to the civil service, in particular in utilising those with commercial, financial, digital and project delivery skills, is critical to achieving governmental objectives and in improving the quality of policy advice, the effectiveness of public service delivery, and the value for money achieved.”


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