Specialists welcome: minister says days of 'gifted amateur' over

By David Donaldson

July 14, 2016

In the debate about whether we need more generalists or specialists, the pendulum has swung decisively in the direction of the generalist.

But the United Kingdom’s Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock believes it’s swung too far.

Speaking at the launch of the UK’s Civil Service Workforce Plan 2016-2020, Hancock proclaimed: “Gone are the days of the gifted amateur. Today’s world is too complex and demands are too high.”

He’s concerned the push towards generalism encourages people to switch jobs too often, leading to a failure to build up expertise. This disadvantages specialists, leaving them without clear career pathways.

“Movement should be planned and purposeful, to build skills and expertise where they are needed, whilst recognising that sometimes it takes time in post to build experience.

“We want to stop the absurd reality that to get a promotion you have to move. It prevents people getting deep experience and staying put to see a job through, and encourages people to flit from one job to another.

“No longer should we take people with no experience of an area or job and throw them in at the deep end because they have a gap in their experience.

“So I’d say to everyone wanting to build a career in the civil service:

“Specialise, focus on your strengths, become the expert, become the best in the world at what you do. Don’t flit around.”

Under the new plan for the civil service workforce, those who specialise will be rewarded, he said. Part of this will be ensuring there are clear career paths in government for those who choose to specialise. “Fast stream” programs are already being set up in digital, commercial, finance, project delivery and human resources.

The commercial stream, for example, are creating career paths across the civil service that extend beyond departmental boundaries.

Heads of the 26 professions in the civil service are working to provide clarity about where bureaucrats’ next steps are. At the moment they’re busily developing professional standards and qualification requirements, and assessing the capability of those within their profession. Operational delivery and policy, for example, now has a specific learning curriculum.

“All this will allow civil servants to make informed decisions,” he argues. “Informed decisions about how they develop their career, about the learning they need to build skills, and about when they should move role or seek promotion.”

End of ‘laissez-faire’ training

The way training was approached in the bureaucracy would be turned upside down, Hancock announced, giving it more structure.

For too long there’s been a “laissez-faire attitude to training that has encouraged people to train, and to train in what they fancy or think will be useful,” he thinks. “This approach is a dereliction of duty.”

Skills to help embrace change, manage effectively, trust and take responsibility “can be taught”.

“For too long, management of our people in parts of the civil service has been the preserve of the amateur. But management — change management, culture management, people management — these things can and in future will be actively taught.

“Training is part of a manager’s toolkit. Part of the role of the line manager is to guide people’s careers. This means steering — and requiring — training that a member of staff needs. Hands on, caring deeply about the progress of each direct report.”

Developing talent and empowering staff to deliver would require leadership, Hancock argued. The civil service is setting up a new flagship leadership academy, as well as leadership and management apprenticeships.

A ‘porous’ and diverse workforce

The civil service must look like the country it serves, said the minister. This means casting the net wider and further.

In March, the government published its social mobility strategy, setting out the steps we are taking to become the most inclusive employer in the UK.

Part of this is reviewing how experience is measured to ensure people with talent — and not just “polish” — are getting through

“We will be undertaking a comprehensive review of the employee experience. Including the way the civil service identifies talent, to ensure every talented individual has the opportunity to progress.

“True social mobility will only be achieved if we attract, recruit and promote people based on merit and potential, not polish.

“This is essential to unlock the potential of all staff in our workforce, and all future recruits. Whether they are based in London or elsewhere in the UK. Where they work in policy, operations or elsewhere. Whether they attended university or not. And whatever their family background.”

The government wants a more “porous” bureaucracy, with more exchange in and out and supporting people in both short- and long-term jobs. To assist, they’ll be making sure job ads will be advertised externally by default and secondment opportunities are expanded.

Read Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock’s full speech here.

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