Today a small piece of history will go largely unremarked by rest of the world.
The National School of Government at Sunningdale Park (once the Civil Service Staff College) is preparing to close its doors by the end of March and, consequently, the Top Management Programme is also about to end. It is ironic that this flagship programme, which the majority of this country’s most senior civil servants have attended, is being wound up under a Tory Prime Minister as it was Cameron’s predecessor, the Iron Lady herself, who insisted on its creation in the 1980’s in order to expose public servants to the supposedly superior wisdom of the private sector.
Much has changed since then. Yet the same political dogma that established it (public sector bad, private sector good) has led to its demise. A significant national programme that has developed over the years, latterly under the inspired direction of David Wright, into a rigorous and demanding learning experience, will cease today. The participants of TMP 99 – the ninety-ninth cohort – will walk out of the doors of Northcote House at 1.00pm, climb into their cars and make their way home, knowing that they will be the last of their colleagues to have this privilege.
Of course, as a member of the TMP faculty for the past three years, I am not a disinterested party. I shall probably lose some income (though there are many other areas of work to which I can turn my hand) and I shall miss working alongside a group of talented and committed colleagues who have become dear friends. More than this though, I mourn the passing of that rare thing: a leadership programme that delivers what the participants actually need rather than what others think they might want. I say this with some confidence based on the personal comments of participants and the long term qualitative evaluation of the last ten cohorts.
Nothing lasts forever and it may be that its successor programme (if indeed there is one) will be equally good. I hope so but I wonder if the commercial procurement of top leadership development motivated, ultimately, by profit rather than by considerations of quality and value-for-money, can create an environment in which suppliers are able and willing to provide such a powerful and challenging experience. The temptation will be to please the customer, to brandish top-box ticks on “happy sheets” as proof of quality, to attend to the hygiene factors at the expense of the learning experience.
It would have been nice to have reached 100: a century of TMPs. But 99 is still a good score and I console myself with the thought that this team might have gone on to a record innings had rain not stopped play.