Civil service skills shortage frustrates reforms
31 August 2012
Civil servants in Whitehall aren't confident that they have the skills to ensure government reforms improve rather than undermine services, according to a report by the Institute for Government (IfG).
Unless the coalition addresses some of the problems and fast, there is a risk that some of the mistakes of the past will be repeated, the report said, and the benefits of more competition and private sector involvement in public services won't be realised.
The IfG found that civil servants were excited about some of the opportunities that the reforms will bring, but they are "struggling to adapt" to their new roles in delivering the programme and may need more time to develop their commissioning skills.
The report 'Commissioning for success: how to avoid the pitfalls of open public services', said that too few Whitehall departments understood the skills shortages they had or had any clear plans to address them.
Too many in Whitehall felt unprepared for their new roles as influencers of system improvements, rather than direct service managers. Some involved in implementing reforms were relatively new in post and had limited experience in managing public services through competition and contracts.
Also, those writing government contracts often concentrated too much on securing a good price upfront rather than over the life of the contract, and do too little to build the diverse market of suppliers needed to deliver the best results over the long term.
The IfG also revealed that service users didn't always have enough information to make informed choices over which service providers to use, it isn't easy to get rid of poorly performing providers (without seriously disrupting service levels), and services are too often commissioned in government silos, meaning providers are not always encouraged to provide services that make sense to the customer.
The Institute for Government also published 'Choice and competition in public services: learning from history', which warned that it took time for changes to bed in. Major reforms have taken at least eight years in the past and new providers from private and voluntary sectors need time to become adapt to their new frontline roles.
And effective choice and competition requires new public sector skills and mindsets. Success has often depended on how quickly those involved in reforms have adapted their institutional structures, processes and skills to support the new approaches.
IfG programme director and co-author of both reports Tom Gash said: "At the next election, the coalition will want to be able to show that public service reforms – in schools, hospitals and other core public services – are delivering results. Those involved in delivering these reforms are working hard but many in Whitehall are not yet confident they can ensure reforms improve rather than undermine service standards. Unless government addresses some of these problems quickly, there is a risk that some of the mistakes of the past will be repeated."