Building civil service skills for the future

Written evidence for the Public Administration Select Committee’s Inquiry: Building Civil Service Skills for the Future.

Executive summary

ACCA welcomes the opportunity to respond to the call for evidence by the Public Administration Select Committee for its Inquiry: Building Civil Service Skills for the Future.

Over a number of years ACCA has worked closely with the Government’s finance profession and central government departments to enhance financial capability and capacity across Whitehall and seek improvements in public financial management for the taxpayer.

With spending cuts only set to increase in the coming years we believe that there must be a greater emphasis on the role of the finance function across government departments together with achieving strategic financial leadership. This is particularly important as Whitehall has to plan for a future where financial resources for services will continue to contract for a number of years ahead.

ACCA welcomed the introduction of the Capabilities Plan for the Civil Service (the Capabilities Plan) and its recognition of a historic lack of finance skills across Whitehall and commitment to continuous improvement. However, in our view the Capabilities Plan does not go far enough in setting out a road map for embedding strong financial management skills across the civil service. For example, there is a lack of recognition that many non-finance professionals who are also budget holders and project managers are in need basic financial management skills.

The biggest obstacle to building an effective finance profession in central government is how finance professionals are perceived and valued by their colleagues in an organisation which is largely made up of generalists. We believe that a culture change is necessary whereby economists and generalists value the potential contribution that financial management can make to government decision-making. The ‘how to’ achieve culture change is the piece that is missing from the Capabilities Plan.

The continuous churn of civil servants and increasing departures of senior civil servants poses significant problems to the delivery of good governance and corporate memory. It inhibits the ability to learn from mistakes and stifles the dissemination of best practice. This is also not helped by the skills gaps relating to procurement, project and financial management that still persist across Whitehall. There should be a renewed focus by government on addressing these skills gaps

We have found it difficult to identify the true cost of consultancy in central government and the public sector more widely. In part, this is because of uncertainty about the scope of the term ‘management consultancy’ and the lack of accurate financial information.

ACCA’s study ‘Management consultants and public sector transformation (2009)’, found issues when assessing the relative merits of external consultants; firstly; terms such as contracting out and interim management are often conflated with the term management consultant. Secondly and relevant to the first point, there is an insufficient amount of data and metrics with which to measure success and value for money achieved from the use of management consultants. Unsurprisingly results of commissioning management consultants are mixed.

The study also concluded that there will continue to be some debate about the effectiveness of management consultants, who continue to be criticised for management fads and for stating the obvious. What is certain, however, is that by providing knowledge, experience and skills to help improve capability, management consultants play a vital role in the public sector.

Their contribution is also important for helping the public sector to innovate and create efficiencies. However, it is critical that civil servants achieve a better understanding of management consultants and learn the lessons from poor procurement, management and evaluation, to ensure that added value is achieved. Equally it is critical that management consultants understand their clients and the context in which they are working, provide more transparency about their costs, and set out how they will manage the risks of project failure.