Sea change

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 23 July 2014 in Feature

What effect has the recession had on public service learning?

There is not a single government department which has escaped the effects of the economic crisis and the austerity measures which followed. Budgets have been stretched across the board and departments are under more pressure than ever to show that they are delivering results for every penny spent.

In this context, staff training, and the need to keep the officials responsible for running the country up to date with skills has become more important than ever before. This is backed by the views of UK civil service employees themselves – with the overwhelming majority describing on-the-job training as important. 

When the Coalition Government came into office major changes were introduced with the aim of trying to cut costs while simultaneously improving standards – a tightrope for any service provider – as well as fulfilling the political aim of trying to create more space for small and medium-sized enterprises to gain a foothold in the provision of learning and training within the civil service.
In February 2012 Capita won the contract to be the managed service partner for the sector, working in partnership with Civil Service Learning to deliver learning services across central government departments. 

The contract was initially for two years, but at the end of the first it was decided to extend it to four. Stuart Lowry is service director for Capita Learning Services.
He says: “The drivers for the change to provision were important – the first was to ensure that the Government was getting value for money, which has actually meant we have saved the

Government quite a lot of money. The second is aiming to get the best quality learning interventions from the market – because it is not Capita which necessarily does the training. And also to ensure that the supply chain was robustly managed – both in terms of contracts and getting cross-governmental management information on things like quality was a very important drivers. Then the last one was to get more SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises – involved with the delivery of learning across the civil service – those all drove the set up of civil service learning.”

He continues: “This isn’t about the civil service telling Capita to come in and do all the training and delivery. What we do is manage it on behalf of the civil service – so we have a prime supplier list – which is about 35 suppliers which, theoretically, should be able to provide the bulk of learning requirements.”

Capita is allowed to deliver up to 49 per cent of the contract, with the remaining 51 per cent going to SMEs through the open market. The company runs open procurement exercises where SMEs can bid. Lowry says that although theoretically Capita can do 49 per cent of training, in reality up to 70 per cent of the work is delivered by SMEs.

The decision to bring SMEs into the process – and to get Capita to manage the process – signalled a huge change in approach in the civil service. While previously each department would run management and leadership courses, the training was not unified or coordinated across the service – there could be one course in the Ministry of Defence, one in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and another in Education. 

Departments sign up and get access to resources through an online portal, with hints, techniques, reference guides and e-learning material which people can use for self-directed learning. But there is also a common curriculum of around 180 courses which cover the bulk of day-to-day requirements in the civil service – things like briefings and submissions, financial leadership, but also courses which will underpin the civil service capability agenda, the reform agenda and the development of digital skills.

The change – bringing in a company that also works with companies including Lloyds Banking Group, Aviva and Virgin Money Group – marked a change in tack for the civil service. It could not have been easy, but Lowry argues that the transition was pretty smooth.

“We have seen a big change of approach – basically, a cultural change and I think that they have managed that very well, actually. You know they have really been quite tenacious in getting it to work. It has got a lot of support at a senior level – so the head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, is a big supporter of the CSL concept. So they have managed it in a very professional and also commercial way.

"Sometimes the commercial angle maybe takes a backseat in education but clearly the combination of delivering quality – which is the number one thing – but also ensuring that that is done in the commercial best interests of the service. Having worked in learning and development for the best part of fifteen years, in both the public and private sector, they have done incredibly well.”  

 

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