Overcoming public sector challenges for skills, training and retention

Antony Lewendon

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The 2023 House of Lords Public Services Committee report – “Fit for the future? Rethinking the public services workforce” points to the Public Sector in crisis.

It highlights:

  • There’s untapped potential amongst existing staff who need to learn new skills and take on more.
  • Substantial staff shortages severely affect the quality of service provided to users.
  • Morale among existing staff at an all-time low.
  • Employers are falling short in making careers in Public Service appealing to potential recruits, with recruiting new personnel notably challenging.

It’s easy to conclude that this is down to current pay levels and the differentials with the private sector. Yet Omniplex Learning’s public sector expert Antony Lewendon argues online learning and development also has a big part to play.


The “Norm-busting, convention-defying” period has taken its toll


The recent Laura Keunssberg programme, “State of Chaos”, is a fascinating insight into what she describes as a “norm-busting, convention-defying” period of recent political history.

As a seasoned public sector watcher, I was particularly moved by the frustrations and fear expressed by senior civil servants on the receiving end of what could only be described as a time of chaotic, turbulent ministerial direction, fuelled by the fallout of Brexit and an unprecedented global pandemic.

Keunssberg argues that this period may have changed the UK political landscape for good, with a knock-on effect on those working in the machinations of government.


Should alarm bells be ringing?


And sure enough, the impact on morale amongst the public sector workforce should be a cause for concern.

The Institute for Government’s latest survey on civil servant’s morale captures this clearly: “The civil service’s engagement index – the People Survey’s headline indicator which tracks officials’ motivation, pride, advocacy and attachment to their organisation – fell slightly in 2021, and fell again, more sharply, in 2022.”

The authors, Jack Worlidge and Rhys Clyne, cite pay as the main cause, pointing out that “motivated civil servants will help ministers to deliver their priorities. Unhappy officials, on the other hand, will not.”

Tevye Markson, writing in the August 2023 issue of Civil Service World, also points to pay as the most significant issue: “The long-term trend of falling wage value at all grades means salaries in the civil service are now worth (between sic) 12% and 26% less than 13 years ago at each grade level.”

He goes on to point out the impact of low pay on retention, quoting FDA (formerly The Association of First Division Civil Servants) assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge;

In a survey of senior civil servants carried out by the FDA this year, more than 41% said they were actively looking for another job, with the declining value of pay was the top reason for wanting to leave.”

With senior civil servants setting the tone, I can only conclude that those in the junior ranks will think and act along the same lines.

And it’s not just civil servants who are feeling this way. The same is true amongst swathes of public sector employees. Hospital consultants, junior doctors and nurses have been in dispute with their paymasters for months, as have unions representing local government employees. Nearly 170,000 workers left their jobs in the NHS in England in 2022, in a record exodus of employees, according to NHS workforce statistics.

Public sector employees are understandably concerned about the increasing salary gap between them and their private sector counterparts. The latest Office of National Statistics data shows that annual average regular pay growth for the private sector was 8.2% from April to June 2023, compared with 6.2% for the public sector.

Pay isn’t the only issue.


Whilst there’s no doubt that public sector pay dominates the news headlines, I do not believe it’s the only issue at play.

There are substantial staff shortages, which are severely affecting both morale and the quality of service provided to users. The CIPD, in a recent survey, reported that 52% of employers in the public sector are struggling with hard-to-fill vacancies.

This means there’s even more pressure on the remaining employees to not only carry out their “day jobs” but also take up the slack caused by the large number of vacant positions.

Public sector employers are falling short in making public service careers appealing to potential recruits. Recruiting new personnel has become notably challenging. Many departments are subject to pay freezes or, even where they can recruit new staff, have caps on the salary levels they can offer new hires. My experience is that, in particular, this results in the level of IT professionals not being high enough, with people lacking the necessary technical skills to carry out the work satisfactorily.

In short, fewer people are asked to deliver more, with fewer resources, often lacking the requisite skills.

Under such pressure, learning and development take a back seat, being seen as a luxury when the priority is to get the job done. Most L&D is either not delivered, pushed to the bottom of the priority queue or seen as too cumbersome and time-consuming. This was borne out by one conversation I had with a senior executive at a central government department:

“I’ve given up asking my manager about training. There isn’t the time, and nobody can cover your patch while you’re on a course or at a training session. It’s about survival, with us being asked to execute new policies dreamed up by Ministers before we’ve even completed the existing work stack. That’s only going to get worse in an election year.”

Small wonder that morale among existing staff is at an all-time low.


A recent House of Lords report pulls no punches.


The 2023 House of Lords Public Services Committee report – “Fit for the future? Rethinking the public services workforce” supports this view.

Acknowledging the above, this hard-hitting report pulls no punches:

“At present, little action is being taken towards the transformative changes that are needed: rethinking staff deployment; making the most of the highly skilled people within the workforce; and ensuring that they want to enter—and stay in—public service work.”

In other words, it’s not as simple as increasing pay levels. A fundamental rethink is required to radically reposition the public sector as a place to build a successful career.

To retain individuals in the public service workforce, roles must be fulfilling, stimulating, and continuously support personal development. Employers and regulatory bodies must also enhance their ability to recognise skills, regardless of where they were acquired, and establish a means to document and acknowledge them.”


Online learning has a significant role to play in changing the paradigm.


We’re not pretending it’s the total solution. Other issues need to be addressed. But it’s proven that when digital learning is delivered correctly, it will address many challenges the public sector faces.

The problems will only worsen unless a radical, flexible approach to delivering motivating, relevant learning and development is the rule rather than the exception.

Digital learning can provide the catalyst for change by replacing clunky, classroom-based learning at a much lower cost. All the tools, courses, learning content and resources can be available online via an easily accessible learning library. Learners can fit their training and development around their work schedule, and individuals can track their progress. L&D management and measurement can be centrally controlled via a Learning management system.

Here’s how it can work in practice:


1. Self-directed learning – looking after the high-flyers


Self-directed learning is where individuals take ownership of their learning journey. This particularly appeals to high-flyers and those determined to advance in their careers. They are empowered to take the initiative and responsibility for their training. They independently identify their learning needs, set specific learning goals, seek relevant resources, decide on appropriate learning strategies, and assess their progress and performance.

Self-directed learners often exhibit a high degree of autonomy, motivation, and self-discipline as they actively drive their learning experiences. They can quickly acquire new skills and knowledge to meet emerging industry demands. This adaptability is invaluable in fields where technology and trends evolve rapidly, such as IT, digital marketing, and healthcare.


2. Learning in the flow of work – smoothing the journey to digital transformation


Digital learning can also play a big part in improving workplace performance in real time. In the flow of work, digital adoption platforms such as Omniplex Guide deliver in-app guides, help, and support on screen for employees when needed.

This helps employees navigate workplace software and business processes and enter the correct information and data in the appropriate fields. There are many benefits for organisations and individuals. New joiners can get up to speed quickly, and productivity improves with fewer interruptions. Most importantly, individuals gain high levels of motivation and self-esteem by solving workplace problems themselves.

This is particularly relevant for the many public sector organisations running digital transformation programmes to improve efficiency and effectiveness. These involve introducing new working processes and software, which can be challenging for staff. These programmes can only work if you take people with you on the journey – something we find is often overlooked or taken for granted. By providing in-app guidance whilst your people are carrying out the work, the adoption of new ways of working and business processes can be achieved far more effectively.


3. Making the public sector the right place for career development


Competing with the private sector on pay and salary may be a challenge in attracting and retaining staff for public sector organisations. But pay isn’t the only consideration discerning employees look for. Individuals want to work for organisations that offer growth opportunities, where their skills can be honed and applied effectively, and where they can prepare for future career and personal success. The public sector can focus on its strengths by focusing on job security, training and qualifications for future success.

Organisations can provide this through digital learning and development. Online platforms such as Good e-Learning allow learners to build and enhance their careers with online professional courses leading to 80 industry-recognised such as Prince 2, ITIL, Agile PgM and IT4IT.

This makes it easy for public sector organisations to upskill their workforce, developing talent from within. At the same time, individuals can achieve qualifications that make them more valuable as part of their workplace experience.


Addressing the challenges


There’s no doubt that the public sector faces substantial challenges. Pay differential with the private sector is a significant factor that cannot be underestimated. But a stimulating, engaging working environment with digital learning at its heart, where individuals can grow and develop, counts for a lot and should also not be underestimated.


About the author:

Antony Lewendon is part of Omniplex Learning’s public sector team. If you would like to discuss how we can support and complement your L&D efforts, you can get in touch with Antony at [email protected]