Prospect was responding to the National Audit Office report released today (Wednesday), which highlights the significant skills shortages in the areas needed to transform government, including project management and ICT.
The union’s deputy general secretary Garry Graham said: “Relying on consultants to deliver long-term and highly-complex policy objectives is folly – it is not good for government, not good for democratic accountability and not good value for money for the taxpayer.”
Skills and pay
The NAO report says departments report difficulties recruiting and retaining staff and senior managers with the skills necessary to run programmes, due to restrictions on civil service pay rates.
The most common types of specialist temporary staff were digital, ICT and project management – skills that the Civil Service Capabilities Plan has identified as priorities to develop internally.
Graham said: “This report highlights the impact of swingeing headcount reductions across the civil service and an arbitrary approach to capping public sector pay. The cracks are starting to show.
“While the private sector talks of the battle for talent for scarce science, technology, engineering, maths, project management and ICT skills, there is a strategy vacuum at the heart of government.”
The NAO points out that departments now rely more on external support because they have lost project management skills in permanent staff in recent years as a result of high staff turnover.
Graham pointed out that Prospect has long argued for a more strategic approach to specialist skills across government – including an independent review of specialist pay. “Specialist skills are being so hollowed out that the civil service is losing its ability to act as an intelligent customer,” he said.
“Evidence of the growing gap in pay rates for civil service specialists and managers and their private sector comparators continues to mount – with gaps of between 20 and 30% not uncommon and often significantly greater.
“The real scandal is that in ignoring this fact, the government is not only putting operational delivery at risk but ends up paying over the odds for consultants and temporary staff. This is a sticking plaster solution, not a carefully-considered strategic approach.
“No private sector employer would rely on consultants to drive forward and deliver key elements of their business strategy.
“No private sector employer would freeze pay for years and then cap it at an arbitrary 1% until 2020 – irrespective of what is happening in the external market,” concluded Graham.
The NAO analysis suggests that temporary specialist staff are generally paid twice as much as their nearest permanent equivalent. Even so, departments sometimes have difficulty recruiting temporary specialists and go outside the Crown Commercial Service agreement to pay higher rates.
The NAO said spending on consultants and temporary staff had fallen by £1.5 billion by 2014-15. However, spending has increased by between £400 million and £600 million since 2011-12.
Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said: “Using consultants and temporary staff is a short-term fix. The increase in spending since 2011-12 shows that this is not a sustainable strategy.
“Consultants and temporary staff can be more expensive and may lack the detailed organisational knowledge of permanent staff.
“We have to question a policy under which the Cabinet Office spends 35% of its permanent staff costs on C&TS."
The NAO found that two of its three case study departments had no skills registers, or any analysis of their internal approvals of consultancy and temporary staff to better understand the skills they need, why recruitment efforts had failed or how to locate suitably qualified staff.
“We found little evidence in departments’ business cases that they had rigorously assessed the availability of skills internally or had compared in-house and external costs,” it said.
Graham agreed with the NAO that departments should develop a strategic plan that covers all bodies within their group, identifies their current skills and expected skills gaps, and determines how best to fill those gaps.