By Tamsin Rutter

16 Oct 2017

After 21 months in government, Rupert McNeil, chief people officer and head of civil service HR, tells Tamsin Rutter about the importance of inclusive leadership and that the future of work is people, not technology.

Photos: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Inspired by a recent work trip, the civil service chief people officer is learning Chinese. When Civil Service World meets him on a Monday morning, Rupert McNeil has just finished his fifth lesson and there are characters still scrawled on the whiteboard behind him. He points to one in particular: 同志 – or tóngzhì in the latin-lettered system of pinyin.

The literal translation is “same purpose”, and members of the Chinese Communist Party traditionally used it to mean “comrade”, a greeting to address almost everyone. But it largely fell into disuse, and was claimed towards the end of the 20th century by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to refer to themselves.

It seems perhaps an odd nugget for McNeil to open with, but the double meaning is indicative of a lot of his current thinking on leadership in the civil service: doing things collectively, while ensuring that individuals feel empowered to be themselves.


He and his Chinese counterpart are hoping to conduct twice-yearly exchanges on HR learning and development. Despite the major difference between the two bureaucracies – no distinction exists between political and civil service appointments in the vast east-Asian nation – China is grappling with similar challenges to the UK civil service, says McNeil. Succession planning, talent management, and performance appraisals, to name a few.

And, “leaving aside how one feels about China”, there are some things they do “probably better than we do”, he continues. “HR as a discipline in Europe – in the Anglo-Saxon world in particular – started off very transactional and, like technology, it’s got more strategic,” he says. But the Chinese Communist Party has always had, effectively, an HR department, with people like [Chairman] Mao in charge of it… and all 15 million government jobs under their auspices.

“It’s a bit like having an organisation that’s based on customer service. They want to make sure that people will, consistently, across this enormous machine, make similar judgements.”

China is also a pioneer of certain performance management techniques. “The further up you get, the more it’s about acclamation,” McNeil says. “What your people think of you is important to your promotion. The whole concept of 360-degree feedback [an appraisal system also used in Whitehall] is actually very important. If you weren’t endorsed by the people who work for you, you wouldn’t get into senior jobs.”

‘Learning from those who’ve done it’

McNeil, as head of the HR function for the civil service, is boss to around 3,500 human resources professionals working across all departments. He is responsible for workforce strategy, talent management, senior recruitment, civil service capability and the diversity and inclusion agenda.

He joined government from the private sector in January last year, after spending around a decade of his career in professional services partnerships – Arthur Andersen and Deloitte – and then a decade in the corporate world – mainly Barclays and Lloyds. In his first few months McNeil drew his own comparisons to help him get to grips with the inner workings of government.

“The way the civil service operates is much more like a partnership in a professional services firm,” he explains.  “The group of permanent secretaries is like a group of partners. Jeremy Heywood is senior partner, John Manzoni is the managing partner. You’ve got these partners running very different businesses who come together and... you can’t impose things to the same extent as you could in a corporate environment.”

McNeil immediately set to work on the Civil Service Workforce Plan, which was launched in July last year and commits to making all recruitment into the civil service external-by-default by 2020, and to creating career pathways for each of the 26 professions – including HR, policy, project delivery and communications.

It also reiterated plans to create one of the civil service’s flagship initiatives, the Leadership Academy, which, as McNeil explains, is about “doing things collectively” and has three strands of work. The first, headed up by Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Robert Devereux, includes a 24-hour “base camp” to train senior civil servants as they go through “transition points”, focusing at first on deputy directors as they move into the Senior Civil Service. The second, steered by Tony Meggs, chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, focuses on the role of the professions.

And the third, with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs permanent secretary Clare Moriarty in charge, is a “way of building corporate memory” by analysing previous complex government work with a view to learning lessons. There are several case studies already in the offing, McNeil says, including the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, the formation of the Scottish fiscal framework and Whitehall’s response to the Ebola crisis.

“[It’s about] learning from the people who’ve done it,” he adds. “Not just the technical side of it – which is important – as much as what it feels like to do it, what does it mean in terms of personal resilience.”

‘Extraordinarily resilient’

Another finding that surprised McNeil when he took up his current job, he says, was quite how resilient civil servants already are.

“Civil servants operate in an environment of massive transparency compared to almost any other sector… with a lot of constraints on tools they’ve got to do it with,” he tells CSW. “There are lots of situations in the private sector where, for better or worse, people can buy themselves out of problems and that’s not really an option [in the civil service]. On top of that you’ve got a huge amount of change and the complexity of the political context as well.

“Civil servants are by their nature extraordinarily resilient compared to many other people on the workforce and that probably isn’t in any way recognised enough.”

They are, he continues, far more marketable than many people realise – partly because so few understand what civil servants actually do. “Civil servants don’t have an equivalent of Casualty [to explain their work]; we’re still stuck slightly in the public consciousness in the Yes Minister and The Thick of It image”. While many in government, bemoaning skills gaps, are recruiting from the private sector and encouraging staff to sign up for secondments, McNeil wants to see movement in both directions.

“What I would love to see is more people in the private sector recognising that there is experience they could get more quickly, in more depth, and in a more effective way, by coming and spending part of their career in the public sphere and in government,” he says.

Asked how the civil service can ensure it benefits from the skills of workers returning from private sector stints, McNeil says this can be made easier by the way in which the professions work. He feels very fortunate to have entered government at a time that “coincided with a much clearer role for the professions”, which now set the standards and expectations for roles, and centrally coordinate recruitment campaigns. For commercial, digital and project delivery – areas pinpointed as having capabilities gaps – he says this has already made a huge difference. 

“Professions provide a way of reaching out into their national and global marketplaces and professional communities, and to keep in touch with alumni and prospective returners,” he adds.

McNeil on…  the future of work

One of the most important parts of his job, says McNeil, is “making sure the civil service has the right capability to meet current and future needs”.

In practice this means that within the next few months he plans to kick off a series of seminars with senior civil servants, alumni, and possibly fast streamers, about cognitive technology: namely machine learning and artificial intelligence. He says: “One of the ways we want to look at that is – if we went back 15 years, knowing what we now know about digital, what would we wish we’d taught people? It wouldn’t necessarily be about hardware and software, it would actually be about user-centricity, process design, systems – so what’s the equivalent?

“How will we demonstrate in 30 years’ time that we have got a grip on a system which has components in it that are improving themselves in ways which you can’t see?”

McNeil has strong views about the transformative role of technology in the workplace, particularly for client-facing roles in prisons or job centres, where technology can strip away some of the bureaucracy and leave staff with more time to help people. “I actually think for large parts of the public sector, automation and cognitive technology will make jobs more interesting and more empowering,” he says.

He also believes that the future is as much about people as technology. “When I joined the corporate world in 2005 it was probably still just possible to be a senior executive in a bank without a lot of knowledge about technology,” he says. “That’s impossible to imagine now. In fact it’s impossible to imagine any senior leader in any organisation not having a good grasp of the strategic role of technology. 

“I think the same thing is happening to the people agenda. People are now understanding that it isn’t just transactional... it’s really about how do you plan your workforce, what kind of culture do you want in your organisation, how do those different components fit together.”

‘We need a coherent approach to reward’

There are some large impending unknowns for civil servants: Theresa May’s speech in Florence last month may have offered a little more direction on Brexit, but it will be years before the haystack of details is properly organised and officials can settle into the post-exit reality. This pressure piles on top of already long-running staff concerns, with the latest Civil Service People Survey revealing that just 31% of civil servants are satisfied with their pay and reward packages, while just 58% feel they have an acceptable workload. The Treasury has told pay review bodies they can flex the 1% pay cap, but it stressed the continued need for pay discipline and has not yet pledged any funding. Almost a third of the members of the FDA union for senior civil servants have warned that they want to leave the civil service as soon as possible.

Despite this, McNeil says “compared to other environments I’ve been in, retention is perhaps less of an issue”, adding that people tend to move around more rapidly in some other labour markets. “That is not to say that retention is not an issue in parts of the civil service,” he says. “There is also the added phenomenon of people moving between departments. So the retention issue in the civil service is more about movement within the system of civil service organisations, rather than about people leaving the civil service.”

He recognises the need for a “coherent approach to reward across the civil service, in the different jobs that we’ve got... specialists who come in and those who are grown within [the civil service]”. He adds: “Across such a diverse set of populations and different types of worker you’re definitely looking for coherence. [A position] in a Jobcentre or in a prison or in a policy role in Whitehall are so radically different, but you need to make sure you’ve got the appropriate approach in each of those.”

This makes it easier to move people around the civil service in a more coordinated and open way, says McNeil. 

“There are several strands to that work and it builds on really interesting work that has happened, for example, with DWP and their employee deal – that’s a very good example of the types of things we could usefully see extended elsewhere,” he continues.

“The way the civil service operates is much more like a partnership in a professional services firm. The group of permanent secretaries is like a group of partners.”

Ahead of the 2015 Spending Review, the DWP managed to strike a deal with the Treasury: staff could sign up for a cap-busting salary boost in exchange for agreeing to be flexible over their working hours. The deal applies to staff at lower grades, from administrative assistant through to higher executive officer level, including workers in DWP contact centres and JobCentre Plus.

“The Senior Salaries Review Board has challenged us to come up with strategic approaches to the SCS as well,” adds McNeil.

Pressed on what more the civil service can do to safeguard the wellbeing of staff, McNeil says it’s “very closely linked to good management” and that promoting the health and wellbeing of staff should be a key focus for all line managers.

“There’s more we can do in terms of training and development for line managers,” he says. “We’re doing something quite innovative – [line] managers quite often have coaches to help them in their development, and we’re making sure coaches are also sensitive to mental health issues.

“Having a mental health condition myself, I would say that understanding how you interact with your work environment is hugely important. And being very attentive to your sleep, your diet, your exercise, all of those things.”

McNeil has written previously, on the civil service blog, about his long-standing tendency to experience deep anxiety, and his decision to “tick the disability box” on employee feedback forms. He has also applied for a workplace adjustment passport – an initiative launched by civil service disability champion and Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam, which supplies line managers with information about the workplace needs of disabled staff when they move into a new role or department.

Striving to boost diversity

Initiatives like the workplace adjustment passport feed into one of the civil service’s most ambitious targets: to become the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020. 

One way it hopes to achieve this is by increasing diversity: improving the representation of minority groups, particularly at senior levels, is a long-sought ambition which has had mixed results. An update to the Talent Action Plan published last year focused on socioeconomic background, after it was discovered that just 4% of the intake of the civil service’s flagship Fast Stream graduate programme were from disadvantaged backgrounds – that’s even less diverse than the student population at the University of Oxford. Attempts to tackle this included widening the remit of outreach work, replacing verbal and numerical reasoning with online aptitude tests, opening an assessment centre in Newcastle and introducing a set of metrics to track employee backgrounds.

There has been some success. The last cohort of fast streamers (at around 900 individuals, it’s the largest yet) is “where we want to be at every level in the civil service – which is pretty representative of the UK population”, McNeil says. “We talk about diversity, but actually it’s about being representative of the people that you’re serving.”

"What I would love to see is more people in the private sector recognising there is experience they could get more quickly, in more depth, by coming and spending part of their career in government”

So what’s next for the diversity agenda?  “We know that we’ve made reasonably good progress on gender at senior levels, though there’s still definitely further to go,” says McNeil. Two of the biggest problems for the civil service, he adds, are the under-representation in the SCS of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people and of disabled people, languishing at below 5% in both cases. “The improvement we’ve seen on gender hasn’t happened in those two areas,” he says.

McNeil has been working on the new civil service diversity and inclusion strategy, due to be published this month to coincide with Black History Month. It includes plans to introduce a target for the representation of BAME and disabled people in the SCS.

“Over the coming months departments are going to be setting themselves ambitious targets, which we’ll aggregate up to a final number,” he says. The reason for doing it in this way, he explains, is partly to ensure the final target is “owned collectively”, and partly because different departments have distinct challenges based on “the nature of the markets they’re working in, the types of jobs, and also the locations they’re operating in”.

To help meet the target, a programme of measures will then be put in place, covering “everything from how we assess people, are we going out to the right audiences – basically making sure people aren’t being unnecessarily deterred from joining”.

‘Parts of the civil service have an issue with bullying’

The strategy also aims to make progress towards the civil service goal of becoming the most inclusive employer, first of all by defining what that actually means.

“We’ve been working with leading employers and other groups to come up with the best definition of socioeconomic background and that’s going to be released shortly,” says McNeil, adding that he’ll be working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development over the next 12 to 18 months on a similar set of metrics for inclusion.

“I draw a parallel here to employee engagement – there’s much more of a consensus, now, as to how you measure that,” McNeil says. “You could go to five different organisations or suppliers to do your engagement survey and they’d have a common understanding of the terms and what they’re measuring. I’d like to see something similar on inclusion.”

The inclusion metrics, he speculates, could take into account how people feel on joining the civil service, the results of the people survey, as well as more qualitative data on what people say about working in government.

“There’s still an issue in parts of the civil service with bullying and harassment,” he says. “If you’re LGBTI you’re more likely to report that you’ve experienced one of those two things, which is not acceptable.”

There’s also a problem with employee engagement, with some groups of people with protected characteristics, such as senior BAME staff and all disabled staff, reporting lower engagement levels in the people survey than their colleagues.

Asked about what he’s doing to address these problems, McNeil says having more role models can help boost engagement, an ambition supported by the introduction of targets to improve diversity. It’s also important to adopt a civil service-wide “atmosphere and commitment to respect in the workplace,” he says.

“This links into [the Leadership Academy and Moriarty’s work on] lessons from Chilcot,” he adds, “about openness and being able to have open conversations up and down the management line, where people would be willing to raise issues and points of disagreement.”

The Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War, which was finally published in July last year, found that the failure of Whitehall departments to work together, or to challenge the shaky foundations upon which some policy recommendations were made, undermined Britain’s preparations for the aftermath of the conflict. 

McNeil continues: “What that takes you to is really interesting questions about micro-behaviours, and the small signs which encourage or discourage inclusive behaviour.”

He offers three examples: first, the influence of those chairing meetings in ensuring introverts are included and “particularly outspoken” people don’t dominate. Second, younger workers at a recent Civil Service Live event expressed their discontent at being assumed to be more digitally literate than their older colleagues. Third, line managers who fail to take into account the timetables of part-time workers, or those with caring responsibilities, when they schedule meetings of a coaching or mentoring nature.

McNeil is enthusiastic about flexible working practices in the civil service – citing, by way of example, a colleague of his at Department for International Development who manages a global team largely from her home north of Inverness. “The ability to be able to work in that way, efficiently, and giving us access to such a talented individual – that’s where we really want to be,” he says.

Does he lead by example, and manage to maintain a decent work-life balance himself? 

“I didn’t always in my career but now I do,” he says, adding that his wife, in her 50s, has gone back to university in Oxford and he, at home with his teenage daughter, has taken on additional parenting duties.

“It’s brought home to me a lot of the challenges,” he says. “I’m responsible for how we interact with her school, how she does in her GCSEs, and all that.

“I’ve actually really valued that and probably wish I’d been doing it earlier.”

McNeil, who has segued mid-career into the public sector, embraced flexible working, spoken openly about his own challenges as a leader, and searched for HR tips in improbable places, certainly seems to be modelling himself as the kind of person a chief people officer wants to see right across his organisation.

Read the most recent articles written by Tamsin Rutter - What Works for monitoring and maintaining workplace wellbeing?

Share this page