Our (Unpublished) Letter to the Financial Times — Civil Servant Tests

The Financial Times published an article recently about the Cabinet Office plan to “test” civil servants for commercial skills. The article is behind the paywall, but it drew a letter which was published. Here is the gist of that.


The focus on improving the skills of civil servants in contract negotiation … is very welcome as we need to reduce the stream of costly mistakes (“Civil servants face testing time in effort to dodge contract blunders”, January 4). However, the idea that the selection of the ablest negotiators, to be accompanied by higher pay, is to be based on performance at a single day of training and assessment is laughable … Does the government really think that the negotiators from potential suppliers on the other side of the table will have been chosen based on a day of assessment?

We continue to entrust our money to civil servants who didn’t sign up for such work and who have different, and often totally irrelevant, skill sets. Until we recognise that spending billions of pounds in public money effectively and efficiently requires significant, highly skilled resource, which will pay for itself many times over, we are going to continue wasting hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

Neil Austin”

You may spot the fallacy in that comment, although to be fair to Mr Austin, the original article did also give the impression that this scheme was aimed at generalist civil servants. Anyway, I replied, but the FT did not see fit to publish my letter. Here it is anyway.

Neil Austin (“Procurement skills cannot be learnt in a single day”, 5th January) makes a good point in his comments on the Cabinet Office plan to assess government commercial staff but also misunderstands one issue. Whilst the intent of the scheme is admirable, I do share his concern about the assessment being based on a single day; certainly, deciding that someone who might have worked effectively for many years is no longer fit to be a senior procurement manager based on that one day would seem harsh, and appeals and arguments would arise. But we will have to wait and see if the process is quite as draconian as that in practice.

But Mr Austin seems to think these are generalist civil servants going through the process – he says “We continue to entrust our money to civil servants who didn’t sign up for such work and who have different, and often totally irrelevant, skill sets”.

This is not so in the vast majority of cases. The civil servants going through the assessment will be current commercial and procurement specialists, and they are already involved in virtually all of government’s major external spending programmes. They work in senior roles and many have professional qualifications (such as Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply awards). Many have also worked in the private sector; in a survey we ran a couple of years back, over half the public sector commercial staff who responded had worked in private firms too.

It is too early to say if the Cabinet Office initiative will be successful, but in most cases it is no longer true that “gifted amateurs” are running major procurement programmes in the public sector.

Yours etc,

Peter Smith

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