Without effective policy deliberation, the Civil Service will struggle to do anything well. Professor Colin Talbot makes the case for postgraduate qualifications for the Civil Service Policy Profession.
Since the introduction of ‘Professional Skills for Government’, we have had a defined group within the Civil Service known as the ‘Policy Profession’. Although the ‘Professional Skills for Government’ programme has been abandoned, the various ‘professions’ it created remain.
This group is about 17,000 strong, or just under 4% of the entire service. Yet it is almost certainly the single most important group within the Civil Service.
The popular perception is that most ‘policy’ civil servants are in “the higher staffs of Whitehall”, but this is clearly not the case as ONS data show. Whilst the Senior Civil Service (SCS) is about one quarter ‘policy professionals’, they only account for just over one thousand of the 17,000 in the profession – the vast majority of whom are in middle-to-lower-ranking Civil Service grades. This substantiates earlier analysis which suggested that these grades play a much bigger role in policy making than is often supposed.
Research has established clearly that it is not just the formulation of policy, but its interpretation by “street level bureaucrats”, that determines ‘policy in action’ so we need to consider the wider context.
The Policy Profession has a Board which is governed by the ‘Profession’s Best Practice Framework’. In October 2013 the Board published ‘Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policy Making’. This review acknowledged that “the concept of a policy profession had only limited resonance with civil servants working on policy”. It admitted that despite a number of efforts since the early 2000s, there had been no significant change in the professional capability of the Civil Service.
The review identified significant barriers to change. On average, only 52% of people knew the identity of their departmental head of policy provision – and this fell to 26% in one department. There is a lack of shared identity amongst policy professionals –only 64% of survey respondents recognised themselves as members of the policy profession. While 80% of senior civil servants saw themselves as members of the policy profession, only 47% of those in the administrative and executive officer grades did. The review concluded that policy officials do insufficient Continuous Professional Development, with 60% doing less than the recommended five days annual learning and development.
Among the 12 actions proposed in the report, it recommended that those at Civil Service grade 6/7 – 5,000 people who are responsible for much of the ‘spade work’ in policy development – should be subject to much greater professional development. This should focus, said the review, on increasing deep subject expertise, post-graduate qualifications on public policy or business administration, gaining wider experience and the development of skills in related disciplines.
The crucial thing to note here is the proposal for a post-graduate (PG) qualification for policymaking. This is a big change of policy. In 2007 when the Public Administration Select Committee was inquiring into the ‘Skills for Government’ programme, David Walker and I argued strongly that the Civil Service needed some sort of post-graduate qualification as a basis for entering the Senior Civil Service. We both specifically suggested something like an MPA (Masters in Public Administration). At the time the standard response from the leadership of the Civil Service – including from Sir Gus O’Donnell in evidence to the committee – was that such an approach was unnecessary.
The commitment has however been taken forward. In March this year a paper was presented to the Policy Profession Board, entitled ‘A developed proposal for post-graduate qualifications for the Policy Profession’, a copy of which I have seen.
This outlines a scheme for a PG Certificate, Diploma and Masters, to be made available to Grade 6/7 civil servants, provided jointly by the Civil Service itself and partner universities. The annual ‘flow’ proposed would be about 470 per year at Certificate level, 260 at Diploma and about 50 at Masters level. This would bring the UK more closely into line with most other OECD countries, where some form of higher qualification is more or less a norm.
The USA has around 250 MPA courses and a similar number of Masters in Public Policy (MPP), the two main ‘brands’ in this field. The Chinese government has established over 70 MPA program over the past decade or so and globally there are probably well over 500 MPA programs. The UK has lagged significantly behind, although about 20 MPA programs and a similar number of MPPs have been established over recent years – both Oxford and Cambridge recently launched MPPs.
Civil Service engagement with academic research and expertise is not well developed, as our recent survey of the Senior Civil Service revealed. It also indicated, however, that SCS members were very interested in the Public Policy and Public Administration disciplines.
When asked about roles that academics should play, 86% of our respondents said they should be providing information and knowledge for policymakers and 63% thought that education and training for policymakers would also be useful.
However, my (unverified) understanding is that the proposal has ‘stalled’, mainly because of cost. Further research was commissioned and another report published in May/June, which I have also seen. It paints an extremely varied picture of what is being done to equip Grade 6/7 Policy Profession members with the right knowledge and skills, ranging from one or two interesting initiatives to, mainly, not much at all.
The Policy Profession is obviously key to everything the Civil Service does. Policy “blunders”, of the type recently so elegantly discussed by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, have certain common features. Re-analyzing their 12 cases and the 12 causes of ‘blunders’, we found that “lack of deliberation” appears in all of them (‘lack of ministerial accountability’ and weakness of Parliament featured as well in 11 of the 12). An important element of their ‘deficit of deliberation’ is a failure to carefully consider alternatives – in other words, to carry out proper policy analysis.
Without good policy formulation it is hard to make anything else the Civil Service wishes to do work well, or sometimes at all.
- This is an extract from Professor Colin Talbot’s full evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee.