King’s school aims to ‘upskill’ civil servants around the world

International School for Government chaired by former Australian foreign minister and launched by former UK prime minister Tony Blair

September 15, 2019
Bush House, King's College London

A new International School for Government at King’s College London has the ambition of “upskilling” policymakers and civil servants from across the world, with modules ranging from “user-centred digital government” to “empathy and emotion in policymaking”.

The school was launched at an event featuring former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign minister who is executive chair of the school, told Times Higher Education that the idea to develop the school had come from “King’s in collaboration with the civil service here”, with King’s having been in “extensive discussions with the Cabinet Office”.

Mr Downer, a former leader of the Liberal Party, said that “the issue of improving governance through civil service upskilling is critical in this era of great transformation. So we’ve taken the best of King’s and also some module leads from outside King’s to provide a programme that is…contemporary and accessible.” Working with digital technology will be one key emphasis, he added.

The school will offer online modules “with some direct engagement through webinars”, leading to certificates and diplomas, or providing credits that can be put towards master’s courses, said Mr Downer. Other module titles include Robust Decision-Making Under Deep Uncertainty. The school will also launch its own executive master’s course. 

Mr Downer said that the aim was to attract students from “all over the world”, with the school “in negotiations” with a range of governments: “the South Africans, the Argentines…the Commonwealth”.

Asked if the school’s approach to government might be criticised as an outmoded “technocratic” one in an era of increasing populism, Mr Downer said: “There will always be a place for the right thing in government…Whatever the politicians decide to do, the civil servants need to be skilled up and ready to manage and handle it.”

He continued: “It depends what a populist government decides to do…Do they want to spend more money than they can ever borrow? We [civil servants] can help them out there, we can tell them, ‘that can’t be done, my friend’.” If a government were to pursue a “populist” policy such as nationalising a railway, he said, then civil servants would be needed to work out “how in practice” the government could manage a railway.

Mr Blair told the launch event that the new school was timely given the advent of a “much, much greater focus on the processes and machinery and effectiveness of government”.

He said that while his time in opposition had centred on “talking” and the communication skills needed to persuade voters to opt for a change, being in government was “all about doing, and doing is infinitely harder than talking”. Those in government need “executive skills”, he added.

The skills required in government “can be learnt and taught”, Mr Blair said.

Discussing Brexit, the former prime minister criticised the Labour party leadership’s support for a general election as the route to resolving the crisis – although he praised the leadership’s recent move to work with other parties to block a no-deal Brexit. He argued for a second referendum and against “mixing up” an election with Brexit. Boris Johnson was only seeking to do so because he saw “political advantage” in using an election to force a no-deal Brexit, he added.

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