Features: March 10th, 2006

Professional Skills for Government: – Death of the Generalist

By Sir Richard Mottram

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

The first part of the title of this article refers to an initiative within the Civil Service—Professional Skills for Government—about the skills and experience needs of senior and middle-management level staff. It is rooted in the policy and delivery challenges we face and what they imply for our people. ‘Death of the Generalist’ links the article to a long-standing set of arguments and baggage about the Civil Service. In doing so I am conscious of reverting to arguments that may have an interest to those of us who joined the Civil Service in the late 1960s but risk a puzzled yawn in others. But I suspect the baggage is still with us. A recent Demos pamphlet, for example, was titled: The Dead Generalist (Straw, 2004).

After a brief history of the concept of the generalist, this article explores how the demands on the Civil Service have changed and are changing, how the Civil Service has already changed, what more still needs to be done and how the Professional Skills for Government agenda fits in. This is one element in a much bigger process of change, but, as the people element, is crucial to our success.


This potted history is for the benefit of readers who do not know what a generalist is or was, dead or alive. Selective quotation is a potentially-misleading business. This said, let us begin with Northcote and Trevelyan, the Founding Fathers of the modern Civil Service. Their 1853 report sets off at an encouraging pace:

It cannot be necessary to enter into any lengthened argument for the purpose of showing the high importance of the Permanent Civil Service…The great and increasing accumulation of public business and the consequent pressure upon the Government, need only be alluded to; and the inconveniences which are inseparable from the frequent changes which take place in the responsible administration are matter of sufficient notoriety.

No less true in 2005 than in 1853 you might feel. The Northcote-Trevelyan Report argues strongly for merit rather than patronage and for the benefits of competition. In these senses it remains topical and modern. It is when it moves on to address whether it is better to train young men for the discharge of the duties which they will afterwards have to perform, or take men of mature age who have already acquired experience in other walks of life, that it reaches a famous conclusion:

Our opinion is, that, as a general rule, it is decidedly best to train young men. Without laying too much stress on the experience which a long official life necessarily brings with it, we cannot but regard it as an advantage of some importance. In many offices, moreover, it is found that the superior docility of young men renders it much easier to make public servants of them, than of those more advanced in life. This may not be the case in the higher class of offices, but is unquestionably so in those where the work consists chiefly of account business. The maintenance of discipline is also easier under such circumstances, and regular habits may be enforced, which it would be difficult to impose for the first time upon older men. To these advantages must be added the important one of being able, by proper regulations, to secure the services of fit persons on much more economical terms.

Fast forward 100 years or so to a lecture given in 1950 by the then Head of the Civil Service, Sir Edward Bridges, on the ‘Portrait of a Profession: The Civil Service Tradition’. It is worth dwelling on the title: ‘Portrait of a Profession’, in other words a special and singular thing, the profession of government. The opening is perhaps also indicative:

I would like to describe the inhabitants of Whitehall in terms of the training and tradition, the outlook of mind and aspirations which play so big a part in determining men’s actions. What I seek to do is to give a picture of the higher staffs of Whitehall…I have no time to include in my picture the large and important professional and technical staffs who pursue their own specialized duties, nor the far larger numbers engaged in the executive work of government up and down the country, although much of what I shall have to say applies to them also.

Bridges explains how to avoid departmentalism:

These frequent changes of duties, whether within the same department or between departments, induce a wider outlook. The first time a man is told to change from work which he has mastered to a new job, he may feel that the special knowledge he has acquired is being wasted. He may grudge the labour of mastering a new subject and may even wonder whether he will be equally successful at it. But when a man has done five jobs in 15 years and has done them all with a measure of success, he is afraid of nothing and welcomes change. He has learned the art of spotting what points are crucial for forming a judgement on a disputed question even when he has the most cursory knowledge of the subject as a whole.

In summarizing what a civil servant’s job amounts to he says: there is the special technique of the skilled administrator—perhaps it should be called an art—the man or woman who may indeed possess special knowledge in different fields, but who will be a good adviser in any field because he or she knows how and where to go and find reliable knowledge, can assess the expertise of others at its true worth, can spot the strong and weak points in any situation at short notice, and can advise how to handle it.

Here we have the elements of the ‘generalist’ paradigm:

•Competitively recruited, early joiners, lifers.

•The equation of the Civil Service with Whitehall.

•A single profession.

•Administration as an art, generally applicable.

Elements of this system have real strengths, not least the fundamental principles that drove the Northcote-Trevelyan Report. What sensible person would not be in favour, for example, of selection and promotion on merit. But this tradition was capable of being turned into the Aunt Sally which in 1968 the Fulton Committee attacked as:

The Home Civil Service today is still fundamentally the product of the 19th-century philosophy of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report. The tasks it faces are those of the second half of the 20th century…The Service is still essentially based on the philosophy of the amateur (or ‘generalist’ or ‘all rounder’).

Of course, much has changed since the Fulton Report: the structure of the Civil Service, the creation of the Civil Service College, the Next Steps Initiative, ‘Modernizing Government’. The list is endless. It is also worth noting in passing that the dog that no longer barks—which was the basis for much of the critique of the Civil Service from the 1950s to the early 1990s—is competence or lack of it in steering the economy. But institutions and their critics both have cultures and long memories which can be influential long after the objective reality may have shifted.

The Changing Environment

In considering skills needed in the Civil Service in recent years, we might note that the principal Ministerial focus has been on the successful delivery of public services—health, education, reducing crime, transport etc. It is the outputs of the 5.5 million public sector employees and many others in the private and voluntary sectors funded by public expenditure that really matter. The Government looks to the Civil Service for help in framing strategy, policy, regulation, plans, resource allocation and performance management to support the success of services whose front-line workers are, in many cases, not civil servants. While the Civil Service itself has considerable direct-delivery responsibilities—supporting disadvantaged people into work, paying pensions and other benefits, running courts and prisons, supporting the armed forces, providing coastguards, collecting taxes etc., here the political language has tended to be more of ‘bureaucrats’ than of the front line.

This said, the public expenditure context is shifting and with it, alongside the delivery agenda focused on effectiveness and outputs, there is an increasing drive for efficiency both in the Civil Service and the wider public service. A strongly consumerist narrative is accompanied by an interest in the application of best practice from the economy as a whole: whether in how services are delivered, business processes are improved, investment projects are managed, corporate services are organized, and so on. All this requires an end-to-end approach linking together strategy, policy development, planning and delivery and ensuring that policies are defined in ways which ensure they can be cost-effectively delivered.

The Response Needed

Change on this scale requires a variety of responses: for example new organizational forms, a stronger emphasis on business processes, more effective exploitation of new technology. It requires new ways of working, a different blend of people, and a different blend of values. It has required us to revisit the top structures of government departments and how those who fill the top posts are recruited.

In filling top posts in the future, we envisage a blend of those with significant experience within Government and others brought in at a number of levels because they have special qualities or scarce skills.

Bringing in New Talent

Processes to populate government departments with the necessary blend of skills have existed for many years. But the influx of ‘outsiders’ has grown in recent years. We can distinguish a number of categories:

•Special advisers.

•Policy experts brought into policy teams and the increased recruitment of high-level professionals in areas such as medicine, science, economics and statistics.

•Sector or service-delivery specialists (from, for example, health, education, local government, the police) recruited into or seconded to departments with responsibilities for these sectors.

•Senior executives recruited into chief executive and other roles in Civil Service delivery organizations (Next Steps agencies).

•The increasing professionalization of corporate functions (for example human resources, IT, finance, communications).

The Professional Skills for Government Agenda

The Professional Skills for Government (PSG) agenda is an important response to these changes. It:

•Provides a framework which recognizes the importance of contributions of professions with a strong track record in the Civil Service (for example lawyers) or those of growing importance (for example the roles of financially-qualified staff).

•Recognizes that professionalism is not the exclusive preserve of those disciplines where it is possible to earn letters after one’s name. Professionalism is essential in all areas, regardless of function. Taking through a piece of legislation, managing the processes of government, preparing a policy document, delivering public accountability through parliamentary questions and correspondence require just as much professionalism as drawing up resource accounts or providing scientific advice.

•Seeks to recognize that the success of an organization is a collective effort. Increasingly it is necessary to understand the work of other people in other parts of the organization. This requires greater opportunities to allow people to work and train alongside colleagues in different parts of the organization and in other organizations where, for example, they are responsible for delivering a department’s objectives.

•Is based on establishing parity of esteem, so that people can reach the most senior positions in a department through a variety of routes; and so that the best talent we recruit is made available to all disciplines.

•Will help equip those with significant experience within Government to compete effectively for the top posts.

•Provides an opportunity for the Civil Service to lay to rest the labelling of some of our most talented staff as ‘generalist’ or ‘specialist’.

The initiative aims to ensure that the Civil Service has the right skills, expertise and experience to support the work of the Government, including delivering services to the public effectively and efficiently; individuals have the opportunities to gain the necessary skills to do an excellent job and are provided with a clearer framework for career development; and our approach to skills and career development is more systematic and consistent.

This is still work in progress in terms of detailed implementation, but the essence of the framework is:

•Career development will be taken forward within three career groupings: operational delivery, policy delivery, and corporate services delivery.

•Staff will be expected to develop competence and skills in terms of four dimensions: leadership, core skills, professional expertise, and experience.

The Three Career Groupings

The skills requirements in each of the career groupings can be broadly defined as follows:

Operational delivery—covering those skilled in leading and managing people (often in large numbers), to build, run and deliver services (usually but not exclusively to the public); management of projects and programmes and change management; customer and stakeholder relationship management and working in partnership with others. This group could also include experts from associated disciplines such as operational researchers, IT experts etc., who are involved in the design of services/process, and others, such as lawyers, involved in case work.

Policy delivery—those skilled in strategy formulation, planning, obtaining and using analytical evidence, policy development, policy evaluation and communication, the conduct of government business and public accountability, how to make change happen and deliver through others, and/or expert in specific approaches to policy making. This group would include experts from associated disciplines such as economists, social researchers, science/research and some legal advisers.

Corporate services delivery—those skilled in the provision of enabling services needed in departments and in change management and performance management. These may include HR, finance, IT, procurement/commercial, and communications/marketing, but members of these professions may also be operational or policy delivery focused.

The self-assessed career experience of existing members of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) divides into 34% operational delivery, 50% policy delivery, 16% corporate services delivery. This is not, of course, necessarily how our skills and experience needs for the future will be divided. The PSG process should encourage departments to consider more rigorously how the blend of skills they need compares with the blend of skills they have.

The present PSG framework focuses on skills and experience requirements for three key levels of the Civil Service: at Grade 7 or departmental equivalents; SCS entry level, and board level (SCS pay band 3). People will need to be able to demonstrate common minimum standards of skills, knowledge, and experience at these levels. The requirements will act as gateways to promotion to these levels and also define the standards all staff at that level are expected to meet, creating a framework for professional development.

The Four Dimensions of PSG

The four key dimensions of PSG are leadership, core skills, professional expertise and wider experience.

Leadership: A leadership vision for the SCS was developed in 2003 on which PSG can build. It identified that individuals need to demonstrate that they are visible leaders who inspire trust; focus on strategic outcomes; take personal responsibility for delivering results effectively and swiftly; work across traditional boundaries; match resources to business priorities; are honest, courageous and realistic with staff and Ministers; and constantly learn.

Core skills: Four core skills will be mandatory for everyone at Grade 7 and equivalent grades: analysis and use of evidence; financial management; people management; and programme and project management. In addition, those in, or aspiring to, the SCS will need to demonstrate skills in communications and marketing and strategic thinking.

Professional expertise: Frameworks for continuous professional development (CPD) are already in place in a number of professions in the Civil Service. Heads of Profession have been developing new CPD requirements for key management levels in their own professions into which PSG requirements are to be incorporated. At the same time, the requirement for professional expertise will now apply just as much to a team leader in a policy-development area, or a manager of one of our operational-delivery activities as to those with a specific role to provide professional advice (for example scientists, lawyers, doctors and economists). There will be new professional requirements for operational delivery and policy delivery staff. For policy-delivery staff, they will cover policy design, policy delivery, partnership working and sector knowledge. For operational delivery staff, they will cover customer service, partnership working, organizational performance management;

Experience: Staff will be required to have experience of other career groupings as they reach more senior levels, on the basis that up to Grade 7 level, it is depth of knowledge which is valuable, but that as people reach the SCS, breadth of experience becomes increasingly important. This wider experience could be within the Civil Service or in other sectors. The framework being developed envisages that broader experience can be gained in a number of ways—most obviously by doing a job in another career grouping but this will not be possible in each and every case. It might also be obtained through broadening the work done in an existing post, working part-time on a project in another area, and assisted by coaching, shadowing and twinning. The Cabinet Office is working with departments on guiding principles for the broader experience requirement and examples of how they might work in practice.

The New Paradigm

What, then, is the new paradigm? Its elements are:

•Competitive recruitment, mix of entry points, mix of career paths.

•Focus on the full breadth of Civil Service work, parity of esteem between different career groupings.

•Recognition there is not a single unique profession of government.

•Recognition that all our staff need to be professional regardless of their point of entry or educational background.

•Meeting the challenges of central Government today requires a set of leadership competencies, skills and experience requirements, with a changing blend of importance between them at different levels.

We are attempting to create an organization which looks outwards more, has a different blend of experience, brings people in at all levels, and which still recruits some of the most able graduates from the different subject backgrounds and offers them clear career paths.

Issues Around Implementation

This agenda raises large-scale management and HR issues around accreditation of existing skills; priorities between up-skilling of existing staff already at these levels and new entrants, and therefore handling the transition; and finding the necessary resources. We need an agenda which is not élitist with departments having skills strategies for all their staff.

There are questions, for example, around how far and to what level of detail the framework will be mandatory and how to accommodate the special needs of departments and individual professions while having sufficient prescription to ensure delivery. And the framework is quite complicated: can we devise clear communications messages? All this is work in progress.

Looking more broadly, I might pick out three issues. First, going back to one of my quotations from Northcote-Trevelyan, they looked to recruitment of the young and a largely closed career system because it was more economical—presumably in narrowly-defined remuneration terms. Successive governments have looked towards a more open, market-facing system on the basis that it will produce better results in broader terms. This opens up new challenges in devising remuneration structures which are competitive, taking account of the non-pecuniary benefits of working in central government.

Second, a structure much more open to bringing in new blood at all levels needs to have in place the induction and support systems which ensure we make the best of the new talent. Even with these, not everyone will succeed, so there will inevitably be turbulence if performance is properly tackled for both newcomers and those with longer track records. And not everyone may take to our framework of accountability and some of the ways in which central government works: how far are we—including Ministers—prepared to change in these areas to accommodate new people?

Lastly, I have addressed the skills and experience issues from the perspective of the Civil Service. Other parts of government—for example, non-departmental public bodies and local government—have different traditions, with I would guess more emphasis on professional skills. The Civil Service system has weaknesses we are seeking to tackle, but strengths we do not want to lose—perhaps around the quality of our people, a capacity for strategic thinking, and avoiding producer capture.

There are lessons to be shared on what works best. Our challenge, then, is to find the blend of people, and the knowledge, skills and experience they can bring to bear, which best meets the changing requirements of central government. PSG has a key part to play in this.


Bridges, E. (1950), Portrait of a Profession: The Civil Service Tradition (The Rede Lecture 1950), (Cambridge University Press).

Fulton Report (1968), The Report of the Committee on the Civil Service, Cmnd 3638 (HMSO, London).

Northcote-Trevelyan Report (1853), The Organization of the Permanent Civil Service. Appendix B of the Fulton Report op. cit.

Straw, E. (2004), The Dead Generalist: Reforming the Civil Service and Public Services (Demos, London).

Sir Richard Mottram is Permanent Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, London.