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Gifted amateurs, experts and people who don’t flit around

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Capability, Strategy

I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.

It’s a sentiment shared by the outgoing minister for the Cabinet Office who said the other day that the days of the gifted amateur are over, advising civil servants to “become the expert, become the best in the world at what you do. Don't flit around.”

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of DH 2020, the department’s programme to become a better, leaner organisation, and in the context of the evolution of our digital and communications teams.

I have a bias towards expertise of course, because I lead expert rather than generalist teams. And we’ve been on a drive to become more expert rather than less. Every time we’ve recruited into the digital team recently, we’ve asked ourselves the question “will this person add to our expertise?” As a result, I think we’ve recruited some brilliant people who are now helping us to lead increasingly sophisticated and impactful work.

It wasn’t always the case though. When I joined the department, I remember being struck by the relative absence of in house digital expertise. Expertise was something that civil servants tended to pay suppliers to provide, and in house specialists were scarce. The same was true across central government, and the Government Digital Service has done much to help reverse this.

The history of digital communications in government is partly the story of gifted amateurs - early adopters of social media who had sympathetic (or inattentive) bosses and were prepared to experiment. Some of my early forays into digital engagement, and those of my peers, were definitely the work of enthusiastic amateurs. But expectations are much higher now, and they should be.

As we design a new, smaller, communications function for the department it is tempting to reduce the number of expert roles. After all, the Modern Communications Operating Model (the blueprint for a government communications team) rightly sets high expectations for the mainstreamed skills of all communications professionals. If everyone has digital skills why would we still need in house digital experts?

But I think that would be a misreading of the operating model, and would run counter to the welcome trend towards a more expert civil service. I think the MCOM actually makes the case for different, more skilled, more expert communications teams in response to a massively disrupted communications landscape.

In practice, if we need graphic design, we either need an in house graphic designer to do it or we need to pay a supplier to provide those skills; if we need data science, we either need an in house data scientist or we need to pay a supplier who has those skills; if we need content, we either need an in house content designer or we need to pay a supplier to do it for us.

What we don’t want (in my opinion) is enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.

That’s why, as we reshape our department, I’ve been making the case to continue our drive to bring experts into the department, alongside our drive to mainstream new skills in all staff. Because I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.

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  1. Comment by Cllr Mike Allen posted on

    I understand the sentiments but urge you to mix outside talent with internal. Choosing either or course will lose the opportunity to stimulate your employees to be the best by comparison with the best teams outside. Many years of international consultancy showed me the dangers of insularity .

    The developments are becoming far too diverse to be up to date with everything.

    Mike Allen

  2. Comment by Victor Martin Hunt posted on

    I read this article & found it interesting as graphic design was a skill I used to possess,Don't fret I'm not looking for a job as I am 75 yrs old and retired registered disabled.person.
    Firstly may I ask why you want a graphic designer ? Some detail would be helpful !
    Secondly do you have any concepts on the type/style of graphic designs that you currently use or have used in the past. if so I would be interested to see them .Where & how would these graphic designs be used in house use,public use or both ?
    Thirdly How many department's or people would this graphic designer be expected to serve & who would he or she report to ? .
    Finally what range of salary would you be offering for an in house Graphic Designer ?

    • Replies to Victor Martin Hunt>

      Comment by Stephen Hale posted on

      HI Victor - I was using graphic design as an example of a specialist skill to make my point, but we don't actually have any design roles advertised at the moment, so I don't have anything specific to share I'm afraid. But day to day, we often need to produce visual content to explain our work, whether that's in our publications, or in the way we're explaining or promoting our work in social media. See the kinds of things we're posting to for examples. Sometimes we need to produce more complex visualisations of data, or animations like At the moment some of this type of work is done in house, and some is outsourced.

  3. Comment by Paul Nelson posted on

    Cllr Allen...I couldn't agree more...Mr Hale it may be prudent to review the BBC Look East News Story by Tom Barton & Craig Lewis 'England NHS multi-million-pound contract consultants axed' the reported gap between 'Expert forecast outcomes' and 'reality' is a tad eye-watering...I am not suggesting you are wholly incorrect, merely that just perhaps a 'gifted amateur' could add breadth & depth experience to a rather narrow & specific field expert view.

  4. Comment by Jon Poole posted on

    I think there's a genuine tension here between the point at which you need to apply genuine expertise and the point at which you need to build and develop skills.

    To use a fairly mundane example - I have always expected my analysts to know their way around the basic principles of charting... it doesn't feel like much of a stretch to move that into graphic design (in fact I'd argue that a basic understanding of design is one of the most useful tools at an analysts disposal). Likewise, I'm yet to be convinced that for the overwhelming majority of use cases "data science" isn't jargon for "handy enough with excel and can do some descriptive and basic statistics".

    The question for an increasingly stretched sector is when and how to best draw on the smaller number of use cases where the really complex analytics or really high spec skills are necessary. I'm not sure the proposed model is sustainable.

    Plus, I love my creative amateurs, we simply couldn't do our job without them.