Only one in three civil servants hold professional qualifications, according to Cabinet Office data.
The IPPR wants a new department for the prime minister
The findings are revealed in a report to be published by the Institute for Public Policy Research next week.
The proportion of senior civil servants with professional qualifications is slowly rising, it says. It wants more professionalism in the service.
The report includes more than 65 in-depth interviews with permanent secretaries and ministers.
A total of 3% hold financial and accountancy qualifications and 2% hold personnel and human resources qualifications, the data says.
Of 3,893 senior civil servants, 104 hold accountancy qualifications, 63 human resources, 374 legal, 128 engineering, 87 medical and 60 teaching.
SENIOR QUALIFIED STAFF
In the year with the most recent qualification figures available, 2004, total government expenditure was £488bn.
The civil service employs a total of around 500,000 staff.
Nick Pearce, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) director said: "We need a new professionalism in Whitehall - one that recognises and rewards professional qualifications as well as generalist skills.
"The pace of change is painfully slow.
"Fundamental reform to the way the service is governed is necessary if we are to make systemic and sustained change.
"The civil service will never achieve consistently high performance without external public accountability and effective performance management."
The IPPR's report recommends a series of measures including a new civil service head to lead an executive and to manage permanent secretaries.
It wants a new governing body for the civil service, appointed by Parliament, to set strategic direction.
And the enhancement of parliament's powers to hold ministers to account and a new department for the prime minister and Cabinet with responsibility for co-ordinating government policy and policy development.