Helping create the civil service of the future blog image What do the national minimum wage and the Covid Furlough system have in common? Or the smoking ban and The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act?
Well, they all are genuine government success stories. While not without their controversies or detractors, each of them achieved the desired impact and serve as a vivid reminder that government has almost limitless potential to transform people’s lives for the better.
But that’s not all they share.
These policies are also all connected by the fact that their success relied on the dedication, expertise and skills of the civil servants responsible for turning them from blueprint into reality, from whiteboard doodles into real life change. And this is no straightforward process.
Life in government is hard, life in government is challenging. You certainly don’t become a civil servant for the quiet life or for an easy ride. Seriously, this time last year who really thought that 12 months hence there would currently be a war in Europe or a spiralling cost of living crisis?
This all means that without civil servants with the right skills to develop and deliver its policies, governments of any political stripe will fail to achieve their objectives. And that’s exactly why we have been working with HM Passport Office (HMPO) to build the right environment and learning framework to support HMPO’s development of their civil servants.

Development dynamics

HMPO is currently undergoing a sweeping digital transformation by moving towards a more agile, product centric and cloud first service delivery, all underpinned by common data and architecture. As HMPO don’t currently have some of these capabilities in-house, much of this work is done in partnership with a network of digital delivery suppliers, including BAE Systems and Kainos – but it doesn’t always have to be this way. HMPO are invested in building in-house capability and have requested that all partners support them with these aims.
One of the key HMPO leadership initiatives is their very own development programme. This is a golden opportunity, a year’s worth of dedicated investment in training and developing an individual. It aims to leverage the knowledge of existing civil servants and provide them with an opportunity to learn and develop in a new role. Now this isn’t for everyone. Those selected need to be driven and highly motivated in order to be successful. They also need to be open to working with and learning from industry partners – such as BAE Systems and Kainos, for example.
As part of this development programme, in August 2021, one of our experienced product managers was tasked with a fresh set of dual responsibilities – firstly, driving HMPO’s transformation programme forward, and secondly, mentoring a development programme civil servant on a new data product management role over a 12 month period.
So, how did they get on?

Coaching tips

The wonderful Ted Lasso – surely a coaching icon for the ages – once said: “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It's about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
Certainly, providing effective coaching is no easy feat – especially when there are delivery expectations involved. There is a need to dedicate a specific time, set expectations and define an approach. In our case, four key principles were agreed:
  1. Baseline your individual’s skills – understand where they are and identify the gap that needs to close
  2. Understand the learning style of the individual – everyone learns differently, some prefer theoretical learning, others more practical
  3. Be bespoke and flexible – once the first two steps are established, tailor your approach and adapt to any development programme changes
  4. Stay engaged – providing regular communication is key to building trust and two way communication
Helping create the civil service of the future coaching tips
Once these principles had been established with the HMPO development programme’s leaders, the main priority of the first three months was for the civil servant to shadow our product manager, absorbing as much information as possible and being encouraged to share ideas and opinions as well as to “ask the silly questions”.
The next nine months then saw the civil servant make incremental gains in confidence and responsibility by chairing meetings, leading discussions and spearheading tasks, all supported by our product manager but also their civil servant secret weapon: an extensive level of deep-rooted domain knowledge. Twelve months down the line and they are now solely leading the product management of a critical HMPO data product – mission accomplished.

Learning by doing

Improving skills in government is a longstanding priority of governments of every political stripe. The good news is that more recent reforms have succeeded in helping create a series of cross-departmental ‘Functions’ to improve how government builds its specialist skills such as project delivery, finance and commercial. But there is always more to do.
Ever since the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report recommended recruiting civil servants with sound “general ability” and promotion on merit not “preferment, patronage or purchase”, the civil service has been in a race to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. That doesn’t mean, however, that the burden should fall on civil servants alone.
On the contrary, private sector partners also stand to benefit from improved civil service skills. As civil service capabilities grow, our consultants can rotate and change roles – but they can only do that if our legacy includes strengthened skills amongst our civil service colleagues.
To be a civil servant is a noble calling. Every single day they are tasked with the smooth delivery of crucial public services that all of us rely on. This means we’ve all got a stake in ensuring they have the skills they need to tackle the challenges of today – and tomorrow.
The machinery of 21st century government demands no less.

About the author

Tim Everington is a Business Consultant at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence


Further reading

  • Delivering data dividends . Data has proven to be a pivotal weapon in the fight against Covid-19 but its effective deployment has not always run smooth. Here, Andy Lethbridge chronicles his experiences navigating the uncharted and unexpected at the heart of the UK’s early pandemic response
  • All the right steps, but in a different order: why we need a more agile approach to business change : why we need a more agile approach to business change. When it comes to business transformation, it is vital not to ignore the impact on an organisation’s workforce, says Chris Bull. He explains why a flexible approach, with staged communications over a period of time, is so important
  • 10 things we wish we knew  before working on  digital transformation… . Ben Starkie reflects on the lessons learned from working across a variety of digital transformations of all size and scope
  • Moving out of the fast lane . When it comes to new technology, organisations would be better served by slowing down and considering whether they first really need it. Holly Armitage explains why it’s better to hit the brakes
  • Client Conversation: Engineering  the army of the future . Meet Brigadier Stefan Crossfield, soldier, leader and engineer. By excelling in all three he’s currently serving as the British Army’s Chief Data Officer. He tells Mivy James about how the military can reap the dividends of the information age
  • Going high, going low . Secure government organisations must protect their data but this need not mean restricting access to online technologies, says Oliver Dammone
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Tim Everington

Business Consultant, BAE Systems Digital Intelligence