Skilling Up
The discussion was chaired by Civil Service Chief Operating Officer & Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, Alex Chisolm. It centred on improving the skills of the Civil Service to ensure we are ready to tackle the many challenges we face
Kindly supported by Multiverse


Alex Chisholm kicked off the discussion by talking about the work he’s been doing on government skills over the last years – chiefly to make the organisation more digital, more commercial and more diverse in its skill base. The central question posed by the chair to the participants was “what progress have we made and where do we want to go next?”

The biggest challenge, according to Anna Milton, Deputy Director for the Government Legal Department is around how we do more to collaborate across boundaries – whether those are between professions, departments or regions. She pointed out that while we are highly effective at coming together during a crisis, it is much more challenging to maintain that momentum in our approach to business as usual. At the GLD, they are doing a lot of work looking at the future ways of working and how we maintain an understanding of the key issues and cross-fertilisation when we spend far less time together in person.

Conrad Bailey, Director General for Rail Strategy and Services, says that as we try and build our skills base within the Civil Service, we need to be really careful not to become too insular – and look beyond the civil service. He points to the work being done in DFT. They have looked to create a leadership scheme across the rail sector because they realised, they had a whole generation of people who’ve grown up on the British Rail who were disappearing, and they didn't have many people who understood the whole sector. The experience that individuals have got from being involved in that scheme over the last year, according to Conrad, shows that this is now where we need to keep investing.

Lesley Fraser, Director General for Corporate Services in the Scottish Government, says her focus is on the Scottish Government’s major transformation project which means investment is needed in the right skills in order to deliver on the new vision for the Civil Service in Scotland which has digital thinking and citizen centred design at its heart. The skills include programme/project management, digital and commercial skills.

Pamela Dow, Head of Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, took the opportunity to discuss the work of her team whose mission is to raise the floor and ceiling of knowledge, skills and networks in Government. Their approach has been to establish a coherent curriculum – a framework for the “what” – and an accessible campus on and offline – the “how”.

There was further discussion among other panellists centring on the high levels of training and support for senior managers and the blend of skills that already exist in the Civil Service. Also discussed was the changing nature of the skills required in government, and the comparisons that can be made and lessons that can be learned from the private sector.

Euan Blair, Founder and CEO of Multiverse, commented positively on the consistency and clarity of the messaging from Civil Service representatives on the problems they face and the solutions to tackle them. He went on to highlight the ways Multiverse’s professional apprenticeships help

businesses and organisations close their digital skills gaps and open up opportunities for talent from underrepresented backgrounds.

Building on the themes raised in the opening exchanges, Alex Chisholm focused the conversation on the skills that have been required for the past 10 years – and the skills that will be required in the 10 years to come.

JP Marks, Director General, Work and Health Services at the Department for Work and Pensions, highlighted a key takeaway from working during the pandemic: the importance of having good partnerships in place. He stated that rather than feeling like it has to solve all problems, Government should act more like a key part of the community working with other stakeholders to tackle issues.

This requires us to coach leaders to genuinely be able to act within systems, connect across boundaries and deliver value together. Alex Chisholm called the vaccination programme a perfect example of this working in real life.

Matthew Coates, Director General for Government Business Services at the Cabinet Office touched on the fact there are residual skills needed to help people in the age of increasingly digitised services – particularly on the frontlines. Specifically, he hammered home the importance of empathy and being able to engage with someone in person, online, or over the phone in order to help solve their problems.

Dominic Wilson, Director General for Security Policy at the MoD, urged the Civil Service to not be complacent around innovation and experimentation, and avoid getting caught in the trap that innovation requires genius and cannot be trained. These, according to Dominic, are skills that can be developed and are not reliant on natural talent.

Michelle Dyson, Director General of Adult Health and Social Care at DHSC, and Conrad Bailey both underlined the importance of not losing the skills developed during the pandemic and, importantly, the willingness to act fast and take risks in order to deliver on the objectives of our organisations. Alex Chisholm agreed with this point, asserting that taking better adjusted risk-reward decisions will be key to our future success.

Libby Derbyshire, Regional Director for Government at Multiverse added that this has been common across their partners both within the Public Sector (especially in the NHS and the Armed Forces) as well as in the Private Sector. Multiverse have seen a particular trend of organisations investing in skills to better harness their data to make critical insight-driven decisions. Partners have said they achieved up to ten years’ worth of advancement in data analytics skills through the pandemic.

Euan Blair from Multiverse concluded the session by reflecting on the risk appetite of the Civil Service. He commented that, given the scale of the skills crunch facing the UK, a system-wide approach would be required. He also highlighted the vital role apprentices can play in growing in-house capabilities, particularly regarding digital and data skills.

The event was sponsored by Multiverse. A mission-driven startup, they’re building a diverse group of future leaders through high-quality professional apprenticeship programmes that focus on the skills that will define the future of work.