Ministers and civil servants need better skills – and quickly!

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Are you one of those slightly nervous flyers who joins in the applause, grateful as the pilot lands smoothly at your holiday destination?

Or perhaps you stood on your doorstep during the height of the Covid pandemic to applaud the work of those who worked in the NHS?

In both those cases, we admire the professional skills of those who have kept us, and thousands of others, safe whilst working in a situation where, without those skills, lives would be at risk.

So, how do we feel about the skills of ministers and civil servants who were tasked with the responsibility of keeping the nation safe during the Covid pandemic?

This is the subject I set out to explore in my book Coronadiary: 100 days that changed our lives and three skills government had been told to improve. As a former director of the National Audit Office, I knew that three key skills were critical to the success of complex projects: planning, making good use of data and managing risk. Think about those pilots and doctors you were applauding – they are both highly trained in those core skills even though the specialist skills of aviation and medicine will be different.

I set myself two questions:

  1. Given responding to the Covid pandemic was a prime example of a complex government project, how well were these core skills of planning, making good use of data and managing risk applied by ministers and civil servants?

2. And what was the assessment of these skills in other situations before the pandemic?

On the first question, the analysis set out in my book shows how acknowledged failings in the government’s Covid response can all be attributed to poor application of those three core skills: planning, making good use of data and managing risk.

For example, the lack of a rigorous plan for dealing with such a pandemic meant there was insufficient testing capacity in place when the virus arrived in the UK. As a result, there was no accurate data on how fast the virus was spreading and that in turn meant the risks to the public were not managed effectively.

There is general agreement now that, had it been clear how fast the virus was spreading, the first lockdown should have been earlier. Other failings such as the initial lack of PPE and not protecting care home residents from the virus can also be linked to poor management of planning, data and risks.

To add to these concerns, my research showed government had been repeatedly told prior to the pandemic to improve these essential skills in reports from organisations such as the National Audit Office, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and the Institute for Government.

Ministers, who shouldered the ultimate responsibility for making sense of the complex information they were receiving from their medical and scientific advisers, and then deciding what strategy to adopt to deal with the pandemic, had also received no formal training in planning, using data and managing risk when becoming ministers.

Strangely, the media had not picked up on this during all the words that were written and spoken about the pandemic. Only now, in two statements this month, have other organisations started to draw similar conclusions.

In her annual address, Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox lambasted government mistakes as being “much too frequent for comfort” reflecting “pervasive failings in basic competencies and expertise in civil servants and ministers.”

This was followed by The Royal Statistical Society’s findings that MPs, who were required to form judgements on whether the government’s proposed Covid strategies were appropriate, performed poorly on the Society’s basic tests on understanding probabilities, a subject which was at the centre of interpreting the threats posed by the Covid pandemic.

With over 150,000 Covid deaths, the highest in Western Europe, the UK has lessons to learn in respect of its Covid response.

It is clear that if we expect pilots and doctors to protect us from danger by being trained in planning, making good use of data and managing risk, then we should expect no less from those who govern us.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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