Leadership Without Authority Training: Why is the Government Spending Millions to Outsource Training for Public Officials?
The top official at the Ministry of Transport had tried to explain to MPs how committed the civil service was to serving the government at the time. “It wants to do what its master wants, and it wants to be faithful to its master, and most of all it wants to be loved for it,” he explained.
I had to think of this definition recently when I received a reference to the way civil servants are trained. A number of taxpayer-funded courses are available to future public service leaders, with the apparent intention of stripping them of their covers.
One, a six-day workshop on ‘Creating a Strong Personal Presence’, will be led by tutors from the Rada, the Academy of Theater Arts. Priced at nearly £1,400 per person, “You’ll be shown techniques from theater practice and explore how to use your body and voice as tools for effective communication and leadership.” The bottom line, the blurb promises, is, that officials “will have the confidence to take risks in your communications for maximum engagement and impact.”
I poked around a bit more and finally got the opportunity to look at the entire database of training courses offered by different providers. Other courses on offer include ‘Leading Without Authority’ which gives taxpayers back £1,116 per person, ‘Leading in Ambiguity’ (a bargain at £229), a four module workshop on ‘Involving People Through Storytelling’ at £229 per person , several courses on assertiveness (no doubt useful for holding your own against slovenly clerics) and a session on Optimizing Your Emotional Intelligence.
The training is part of a £50m ‘Learn and Develop’ public service contract handed over to consultants KPMG in 2020. Since signing the deal, the company has said it will no longer bid for government work after a series of controversies. When I contacted them, KPMG declined to comment and put questions to the Cabinet Office. Rada also preferred not to comment.
Whitehall’s chief wastebuster, also known as Government Efficiency Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, was furious when he heard about the Rada course, and alongside his “sorry you weren’t there” notes, to return to public service Throwing Whitehall, he now promises to tackle what he views as the more frivolous training courses, alongside his quest to slash 90,000 civil service jobs.
Lest you think this is a one-man crusade, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Theodore Agnew tells me that for years he has been sounding the alarm about the quality of education in the civil service and has posed a series of questions about whether it is a good represents value for money.
He says: “I asked the chief of staff in August 2020 how much we spend on training. I got the answer in January this year. “We spend £190m to £610m on training but we don’t know how it’s being spent.”
He was amazed at how long it took his officers to spit out the information. “It took 16 months! And there was nothing about the effectiveness of the training,” he says, asking why millions were handed over to KPMG. “It’s ridiculous that we have to outsource a core competency as managers,” he adds.
It should be noted that many of the courses listed on the government portal I accessed were not dissimilar to other programs in the private sector. Few would argue that officers need a decent education, and the chaos at the passport office and the DVLA has arguably made the case even stronger.
Some on the opposition benches also fear the ministers’ eagerness to target the “waste” of the public service is dog-whistle politics. They draw comparisons to the deportation of refugees to Rwanda and the tearing up of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But during a cost-of-living crisis, the idea of Whitehall officials spending a week indulging in their inner spirit or locating their emotional intelligence could anger people struggling to make ends meet in insecure, low-paying work.
A government spokesman said in a statement: “Training throughout the civil service is designed to cover a wide range of areas and specialties to ensure government employees have the best possible skills to deliver the services the public relies on.”
It is understood that the Cabinet Office monitors all of its training courses to ensure they offer value for money. This was also taken into account when the first contract was awarded.
But a government source says: “The government wants civil servants to have the right skills, but it’s not clear how courses like this actually help civil servants do their jobs, or what real skills they give them.”
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Before conjuring up his metaphor of the faithful dog, Sir Richard rose to fame briefly when, following Special Counsel Jo Moore’s decision, he wrote the 9/11 tirade, which was then leaked to the press.
Some permanent secretaries – under pressure to rein in public spending like never before while ministers call for austerity and the Treasury brace for a likely recession – could also turn the air blue.
But ministers have the right to ask them questions about whether taxpayers’ money is well spent. If they are to avoid the “hard rain” predicted by Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, the brightest among them know that only the broadest answers will do.
Cathy Newman is presenter and investigative editor at Channel 4 News