The art of the possible: an interview with Rupert McNeil

Written by Geoffrey Lyons on 17 February 2020 in Interview
Interview

“EU Exit is a big thing and it creates pressures that weren’t there before”, the civil service’s chief people officer tells Geoffrey Lyons

Photo: Baldo Sciacca

To Rupert McNeil, the civil service is like a big unsolved puzzle. The chief people officer, who manages 3,500 HR professionals across government, says the challenges he faces on the job excite him and describes some of his recruitment objectives as “engineering problems”. He speaks energetically of complex processes and uses terms like “distributed systems” and “false positive.” Even in his downtime he devours books on how other countries run their governments.

Perhaps his greatest fascination is China. CSW sits down with McNeil almost exactly two years after he spoke to us approvingly of the “enormous machine” that is the Chinese government’s HR department. However one feels about China’s government, he said then, its top-down approach has the enviable effect of ensuring its 10 million civil servants work in unison. The UK’s civil service, by contrast, operates more like “a partnership in a professional services firm” with each permanent secretary “running very different businesses”. 

McNeil now offers a slightly revised analysis. He says the civil service has come closer together in the last two years, and that Brexit planning has revealed “the art of the possible”. 

“For the first time we’re mobilising over 1,500 volunteers between departments to support no-deal and post-day-one planning,” McNeil says. “I’ve been in conversations with ministers who say that for the first time they’ve got 100 people coming to their department [from another department]. That’s an example of something that wasn’t the normal way that we did things in the civil service but which is now emerging out of this situation.” 

In addition to the creation over the last four years of civil service functions and professions, which have led to better planning and movement of people, McNeil says Brexit has “undoubtedly” aided the civil service operationally. 

“It helps diversity and inclusion because it creates new opportunities for people to backfill jobs or get temporary promotion,” he says. “And it helps training because people can get up to speed in the skills that are needed.”  

According to plan 

Boosting diversity and training are both core objectives of the Civil Service Workforce Plan, published in July 2016 by then-Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock. The plan’s broad priorities, which also include improving commercial capability and ensuring the civil service leads the world in digital transformation, are divided into a series of objectives with deadlines ranging from just a few months after the plan was published to May 2020.

“We’re probably around 85 to 90% complete in terms of doing the work that we said we’d do,” McNeil says, adding that Brexit has been an “accelerator” rather than a deterrent. “Had we not had the workforce plan, we still would have needed to do the things that were in it to be able to provide capability for EU Exit.” 

The final phase of the plan will cover what McNeil calls “the hard work of deployment”: rolling out IT systems for the civil service’s new learning and recruiting platforms, the latter of which will be used as a mechanism for the much-anticipated “success profiles”. 

First introduced by civil service chief executive John Manzoni in May 2018, success profiles weren’t specifically featured in the workforce plan but evolved as part of its commitment to develop an alternative to competency-based recruitment. They work by assessing candidates against a “flexible framework” of factors like strengths and experience. 

“You can be a bit lazy in how you assess someone’s experience,” McNeil says. “You can say you looked at the CV, or you might even use the educational institution that someone went to as a shorthand for experience, but of course that’s just a lazy way of doing it. You really need to work out how this person is experienced for the job, which in most cases is not related to where they were educated or purely what their CV says.” The Cabinet Office’s guidance on success profiles states that experience can be transferable from non-work contexts like hobbies and volunteer work, and that candidates will be assessed on their performance, not by how much time they’ve served in a particular field.

McNeil says that even though the success profiles are still being rolled out, they’ve already been well received. “People like to use them,” he says. “They give hiring managers permission to articulate jobs in a rounded way to bring out the best in the people who are applying.” 

Now hiring

Success profiles aren’t the only means by which recruitment is being overhauled. The workforce plan sets out a bold ambition to advertise all roles externally by May, which it says will ensure the civil service has “the most skilled and capable people delivering national priorities”. McNeil says his team have found that even when jobs are advertised externally, they’re still more likely to go to civil servants. “And that doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “It reflects how the civil service has hidden its capability under a bushel.”  At the time of writing, just 60% of jobs below the senior civil service level are advertised externally – but McNeil remains confident that the deadline to reach 100% by May will be met. 

While most new talent is being introduced through traditional channels like the Fast Stream and professional associations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (McNeil says ties to these bodies are strengthening due to Brexit demand), there are also more creative recruitment efforts. In late 2017, for example, the Civil Service Commission teamed up with the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Justice, and Civil Service Local to launch the Going Forward into Employment programme, which provides civil service jobs to ex-offenders from low security prisons in the North West of England. In August, Civil Service Commission chief executive Peter Lawrence said in a GOV.UK blog that, due to the success of the programme, the commission now wants to broaden its reach to support other groups facing employment obstacles. 

“I think there’s a real opportunity to help people come out of the care system, and to help people who are making the move out of a long-term committed career in the armed forces,” McNeil says. “I think it’s a really fantastic programme and what the Commission have done there is really inspired.” 

For the chief people officer, the civil service is generally effective at attracting new talent, but there’s room for improvement. He thinks its public sector ethos, which gives it a “huge advantage”, is undersold. He also thinks it could do a better job at attracting people who don’t necessarily want to become career civil servants. “While the ideal civil service career is to rise from an apprenticeship to being a permanent secretary, ideally we would also have people come in for four to five years and then go out again, acquire more skills, and then come back,” he says.

Stress test

While McNeil is optimistic about Brexit’s impact on the civil service, he acknowledges that it has also taken an enormous toll on the workforce. One civil servant told Channel 4 News that after a long career in the civil service they “never felt so dispirited” and that their wellbeing and marriage had suffered enormously. Another said that they went for counselling after struggling to cope with doing the work of several teams. Last April, less than a year after McNeil announced the availability of 2,200 mental health first aiders to help deal with the issue, it was revealed that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs alone had spent £40,000 on counselling services.

“EU Exit is a big thing and it creates pressures that weren’t there before,” McNeil says. He adds that a lot of the strain caused by Brexit preparation can be attributed to the fact that the work has to “move to where the people are,” requiring more of some departments than of others (Defra has over a fifth of the more than 300 Brexit workstreams across Whitehall). 

While efforts to address workplace stress had already been at the top of the HR function’s agenda, McNeil says that tackling it has, like so many other things, been “accelerated” by Brexit. “It’s made people more aware of how to approach wellbeing in a more sensible way,” he says. “There’s a real focus around creating resilience, and we’ve learned a lot from environments like counterterrorism where resilience and healthy working have already been an important focus for many years.”

Opening up

McNeil is himself no stranger to stress. In 2014, his lifelong battle with anxiety led to a mental breakdown that resulted in him taking three months off work, a doubled dose of prozac, and enlisting in two forms of therapy. He attributes the bulk of his recovery to the “practical steps” that didn’t require a doctor: eating cleanly, exercising regularly, and monitoring sleep “much more closely”. “It wasn’t going to be sorted out by pills alone,” he says. 

McNeil thinks the root cause of his condition is probably genetic. He has two siblings, one is bipolar and the other suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. For him, the “gene” manifests itself as anxiety and depression. He was prescribed Prozac in his mid-20s, which he says made a big difference, but by his mid-40s – at which time he was already a high-flying HR executive in the private sector – a combination of factors, including too much caffeine and too little sleep, caught up with him and caused the breakdown. 

In 2016, McNeil opened up about his experience on the civil service blog, writing that it prompted him to tick the disability box on his employment form and apply for a Workplace Adjustment Passport, which line managers use to document the support that an employee needs. Civil servants were quick to respond, calling the article “courageous” and “inspirational”. One official said it was a “touching and incisive act of leadership”.

“It’s really a high point for me when someone comes up, whether they’re inside the civil service or not, and says, ‘I read your blog. Thanks for doing that,’” McNeil says. “For me, it wasn’t actually a huge deal because I was in an environment in the civil service where I felt very comfortable doing it. I didn’t feel it was going to have any detriment.” 

McNeil says it was important to be transparent about his experience so that he could demonstrate how someone battling a mental health condition early in their career can eventually tackle it. But he also wanted to highlight the benefits of the Workplace Adjustment Passport, which he believes is an invaluable tool for both employees and line managers. He says it has two main advantages: it helps people better articulate and manage their plans (for example, McNeil says he knows someone who slightly adjusted their working hours to account for extra sleep caused by bouts of depression), and it facilitates the interview process, because candidates can be clear from the outset what their requirements are. “If you’ve got a passport, and [an employer] doesn’t want to accept it, then you know that’s not a place you want to be working for,” he says.

McNeil says he’s committed to ensuring the civil service isn’t that kind of place, that it’s somewhere “where people will want to work because they know they’ll be accepted.” It seems likely that his own legacy – as a leader who has been open about his personal challenges and has put inclusion at the top of the civil service’s agenda – will see to that.

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Geoffrey Lyons
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About the author

Geoffrey Lyons is CSW’s strategic partnerships editor. This article first appeared in CSW’s January 2020 HR supplement

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