I first joined the Civil Service in 2002 from the world of learning, having been a tutor at the University of Edinburgh. Earlier this year I spent 6 weeks with Civil Service Learning (CSL), delivering pre-election training on working with ministers, which felt like a very happy return to my roots.
From 2012 I had spent a hectic three years in the busy world of a private office, as PPS to the Secretary of State for Scotland, before heading-up the political negotiations side of the Smith Commission, which dealt with further powers for the Scottish Parliament. When purdah arrived, it was a welcome opportunity to take a break and offer my services back in the learning and development sphere.
This turned out to be perfect timing, as CSL were looking to make increased use of peer-to-peer learning, to make better use of all the expertise we already have within the Civil Service.
So, rather than having a quieter few weeks during the purdah period, I spent it up and down the country delivering sessions to civil servants of all grades, from around 20 departments, on a whole host of topics – winning the confidence of ministers, working with private office and special advisers, and being agile and resilient during times of change.
It’s been enormous fun. I’ve gained insights into parts of government that I hadn’t much experience of, broadening my own perspectives on how the government machine operates. I’ve also learnt a huge amount both from the really talented civil servants I had the pleasure of speaking alongside and from the diverse experiences of our participants. Collectively, we crystallised in the training sessions a set of top tips for success in all these situations.
It was also a very varied few weeks – some teams I worked with had little exposure to ministers, and were keen to hear insights into life in a private office. Others have a vast amount of experience of working with ministers, but wanted to reflect on what they could do better before starting to work with potentially brand new ministers.
The experience has really made me think about the value of the collective knowledge and experience civil servants have – and how much we could all gain by sharing it with our colleagues. It is definitely outdated to think that learning needs can only be met by going on a course. Often someone sitting next to us could have all the experience and expertise we need, if we only made some time for them to share it – and indeed to shadow each other more.
I am now back in the Scotland Office, working on constitutional policy, so it’s fair to say that I’m being kept busy for the foreseeable future. But I’m looking forward to keeping up my links with CSL and to continuing to deliver the odd day of training for them. Most of all, I feel more motivated in my own day job having had the opportunity to learn from excellent colleagues all across government, and having witnessed the incredible amount of knowledge and expertise that surrounds each of us in the Civil Service.