When we launched the Capabilities Plan in 2013 it was the first time we had set out comprehensively the skills that the Civil Service needs to succeed. The plan identified 4 priority areas where we needed to up our game: commercial, digital, programme and project management and leading and managing change.
Focusing hard on these skills over the last couple of years has already allowed us to deliver better public services more efficiently, but there is still much more to do. The taxpayer spends £240bn a year on public services. Given the current financial climate we need to ensure we are getting value for money for every pound spent, and improving our commercial skills is vital if we are to achieve this ambition.
We are starting at the top! Permanent Secretaries are seeking to improve their own skills – in the Civil Service Reform Progress Report we detailed how in future all who aspire to become Permanent Secretaries will be expected to attend a business school course in leadership. I certainly benefited hugely from the time I spent mid-career at Harvard Business School, learning from commercial case studies and from my fellow participants.
Although it is vital that departmental leaders and those that budget for the big million pound projects have real commercial awareness and skills, a large part of our spending is the responsibility of more junior colleagues in the Civil Service. Spending on train tickets, booking accommodation, organising meetings and events or even buying pens and paper all involve making commercial decisions. When scaled up to the full Civil Service they represent substantial amounts of money. There are some simple processes we should consider which are quick to follow and can make a real difference in getting value for money. Gary Edwards from DWP has provided a simple 5 point guide that we should all consider when making commercial decisions.
It doesn’t matter if you are at the start of your career or an experienced civil servant, the commercial environment in which we operate is constantly changing and we need to adapt with it. The digital marketplace and pace of change in procuring new services or looking at alternative new providers means we need to constantly improve our commercial skills – or else we lose our edge.
As a civil servant keen to start improving your commercial skills you may wish to start by reading a few of the blogs written by civil servants in a range of jobs talking about how they improved their skills. We have also provided a toolkit to help you identify, whatever level you are at, the relevant learning available to you.
You might also look to join one of Whitehall’s more specialist commercial areas – for example the Shareholder Executive. A core part of what “ShEx” focuses on is the corporate finance (transactions, funding and negotiations) and governance of some of the government’s commercial arm’s length organisations (e.g. the Post Office, the Royal Mint). It is developing the Government Corporate Finance profession and, as part of this, a Government Corporate Finance qualification. This will be based on a private sector qualification, accredited accordingly but with some bespoke government modules
Have you done any commercial learning yourself? We would be interested to hear how you’ve improved your skills or where you think we could increase our support in this important learning area.