School of thought for creative mandarins : Graduate Plus: MANAGEMENT

Liza Donaldson finds out how the head of the Civil Service College is grooming today's model bureaucrat
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The Independent Online
This year one of the UK's largest and most influential management colleges celebrates its 25th birthday. The Civil Service College boasts a turnover of around £19m a year - bigger than Cranfield School of Management and Ashridge Management College, for instance. While the college's core business is the training and development of middle to top government staff, especially in short courses of a week or less, it is a sign of the times that it is understood to have won a joint bid in partnership with Cranfield and Manchester Business School to launch a Master of Business Administration degree.

Similarly telling is the fact that this year's prospectus offers a new course on understanding Civil Service ethics. It aims to tune mandarins' ears to alarm bells ringing when conflicts of interest arise. The course will also embrace the Government's recently announced code of conduct for the Civil Service.

The college was given the go-ahead by Harold Wilson, and opened by his successor as Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in 1970. Today it supplies 3 per cent of all Civil Service training, from middle managers upwards, but providesalmost a third of training from grades seven to the lofty heights of permanent secretary, including a strong input into the Cabinet Office-run top management programme. In recent years it has shaken off an academic, musty reputation with a new emphasis on management over administration.

Stephen Hickey, who became chief executive after 20 years of Department of Social Security experience, says the college's slogan echoes the new thrust of the Civil Service: "Management for Government". Dr Hickey, who gained his PhD in history, is well placed to judge how the mandarins' role, and therefore the college's, is being transformed. The public management revolution, with the 102 executive agencies and the new cadre of customer-orientated chief executives, the issues flowing from the Citizen's Charter and from market testing, means that "by historical standards the Civil Service is going through more change - structurally and in ways of working - than it has since the period before the war". The changes, including the focus on managing money on tight budgets, mean, he adds, that "the slogan about doing more for less is true - because that is what the Civil Service is being asked to do".

The college's role is "to help civil servants through that agenda of change". The stereotype of the bowler-hatted bureaucrat, the passive administrator obeying orders from above, is gone. Today's model mandarin is the proactive, imaginative manager-leader, setting a strategic direction within a framework decided by ministers, devolving responsibility down the line. This generation, he says, needs a new set of personal attributes and skills, as well as the latest management techniques.

The college is thriving amid this ferment. As Dr Hickey admits, "In a sense we have a vested interest in change." The college has increased its volume of training in the past year by 3 per cent, to 96,370 student days, and its income by 13 per cent. The White Paper Continuity and Change spelt out the college's remit to help meet the training needs of departments and agencies and as a centre for "the cross-fertilisation of ideas between departments and between the wider Civil Service and the economy".

While the college's future in the public sector looks secure, with privatisation ruled out last year, Dr Hickey is not complacent. From April a residual government grant of £700,000 will cease and the college has to be self- sufficient. In addition, since departments and agencies can pick their own training, it has no guaranteed markets.

Difficult as these changes are to grasp from Dr Hickey's timeless Sunningdale office, set among 20 acres of lakes and deer-populated parkland, he and his team have been dreaming up new ways of attracting customers. They recognise they have a shrinking Civil Service market, falling, some predict, from around 500,000 to a core of 50,000. One solution being considered is to put the college's prospectus on the Internet. The college could attract more business in the private sector on top of nearly 1,000 business and industry students.

A programme called "Young Node" already enables future leaders of the public and private sectors to mingle and swap experiences. Dr Hickey, himself seconded in 1989 for 18 months to Rank Xerox, stresses that the traffic is two-way, with the college acting as a bridge. Management insights are injected into the Civil Service from speakers such as GEC Marconi's chief, Lord Weinstock, as well as political leaders such as Michael Gorbachev and the former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey.

"We are trying to balance with public accountability the need to be extremely efficient managerially. These are demanding tasks, where the answers are not straightforward. That is the challenge that makes working in the public sector exciting," he says.

The college and Dr Hickey are looking beyond the UK. The college helped to prepareSouth Africans for government; it has contracts with Namibia, and, in Eastern Europe, with Hungary. The interchange "adds a valuable dimension to our domestic work and helps us to see where we are good and where we have weaknesses", says Dr Hickey.

However, unlike local government, where the training of elected members is encouraged, none is planned for MPs or would-be ministers by the college. Dr Hickey is open-minded about the idea. "If putative ministers would like something, we would be delighted to see what we can arrange," he says.