By Richard Johnstone

15 Sep 2018

A wide-ranging change to how government recruits for roles is being introduced across government. Whitehall’s chief people officer Rupert McNeil and other experts speak to CSW about what the move to success profiles will mean

A fundamental  part of civil service ethos is that it recruits fairly and on merit. To do that, it needs to make sure it is using the best and most up-to-date techniques to recruit across government. The man charged with setting those recruitment rules across government is chief people officer Rupert McNeil. And, as he tells Civil Service World, it isn’t as straightforward a process as setting the rules for a single organisation. Government is “an organisation of organisations, or even an organisation of organisations of organisations,” he says. “But it does have common approaches and our aim in all of employment practices is to be a model employer.”

It is with this aim in mind that McNeil has led the introduction of a new recruitment system, called success profiles, that is set to revolutionise how people are hired and promoted across the civil service.

This new approach, which was first revealed by civil service chief executive John Manzoni in May, is being rolled out to replace the existing civil service competency framework throughout the rest of this year and early next.

Developing an alternative to competency-based recruitment was one of the actions set out in the 2016 Civil Service Workforce Plan, which committed government to move “to a more meaningful and business focused framework of assessment”, and McNeil says the success profiles approach has “been in the works for a couple of years”.

Elements of a success profile

Ability: the aptitude or potential to perform to the required standard.
Experience: the knowledge or mastery of an activity or subject gained through involvement in or exposure to it.
Technical: the demonstration of specific professional skills, knowledge or qualifications.
Behaviours: actions and activities that people do that result in effective performance in a job. Nine are named for use in success profiles.
Strengths: things done regularly and that provide motivation. The government has set out a civil service strengths dictionary of 36 key qualities for working in government or exposure to it.

In an interview to discuss the new plans, he highlights that the legal requirement on the civil service to recruit in a fair and open basis means it needed to keep up with what he calls “the science of selection and career development”.

One of the key ways that recruitment has changed in recent years is the drive to not only improve but support diversity at work, and McNeil says the success profiles reflect the increasing emphasis on encouraging employees to ‘bring their whole self to work’, because they allow for a much more-rounded view in recruitment.

“What we had observed, particularly from feedback from civil servants at all levels, from hiring managers and vacancy holders in the civil service to people sitting on panels was [that] the competency framework was narrowing the way in which people were being assessed,” he says. “We weren’t getting a sense of the full person or allowing people to show themselves at their best.”

The old system focused on assessing competencies while also taking into account previous experience. Success profiles will allow a wider range of factors to be used, covering five areas: ability, experience, strengths, technical and behaviours. Hiring managers will use a combination of these five elements to develop a profile for roles they are recruiting, McNeil says, introducing more flexibility. 


“We looked at what other organisations were doing, and we did a lot of work looking at the insights that have particularly come out of work on diversity and inclusion, and how to get a rounded view of the individual,” he says. “Success profiles improves the process for everybody because it makes it fairer and more effective. It also allows one to look at aspects of someone which they might have developed in another context, for example raising family or outside work, and apply those more readily.”

These elements will be assessed in a number of different ways from current applications, which are based on short statements setting out how candidates meet a set of requirements. Depending on the type of roles being applied for, success profile applications and assessments could include application forms and CVs, interviews and presentations, online tests and assessment centres.

Rollout of the system has already begun, with the Department for Education and HM Revenue and Customs among the early adopters.

Richard Hillsdon, former civil service psychologist who has been helping some departments prepare for the new system as a consultant and associate trainer with CSW’s parent company Dods, said there had been a positive response to the new system. There was a feeling in government it was time for a change, he said.

“Competencies tell you whether people can do the job, perhaps, but they didn’t tell us whether they really want to or what they bring in terms of passion and energy,” he said.

Success profiles also better reflect the development of professional functions across government, championed by civil service chief executive John Manzoni.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this coincides with the maturing of the functional model and the professional model,” says McNeil. “It becomes easier to say for finance jobs or HR jobs or any job, that there is a technical skillset that the profession in the civil service can say, ‘this is what we think someone at this level doing this kind of job should be able to do.” 

"The old competency system had become too rigid and too formulaic,” agrees Hillsdon. “People trotted out examples from their hard drives. It was often quite dry and flat, it wasn’t really about them as such.”

As well as the new system better reflecting how government has changed, Hillsdon says it also better meets the expectations of candidates.

“The overriding reaction from candidates is that they like the idea of strengths,” he notes.

“They’ll say things like, ‘oh, I can talk about myself and that’s been missing’. The idea of having more elements in the selection is about moving away from the stultifying effect of competencies to something which is much more alive and different.”

Top tips for candidates

McNeil says a strengths interview will feel different for candidates than “a not-very-well-done competency interview, let’s put it that way”, but urges candidates to embrace “the chance to express your full self and give rich examples of what you’ve done”.

Candidates will be able to evidence their experience in a host of ways, he says, with these including CVs, which may be less common for civil servants who have previously been applying using competency statements.

Candidates will need to develop their CVs, says Hillsdon, who highlights that “atmospherically, the process will feel different because it’s got a large element about them in it – they are going to talk about themselves”.

He urges candidates to develop their CVs and personal statements using a wide range of experiences, behaviours and strengths to match the essential criteria in job adverts.

Recruitment under the competency framework was “relatively running on rails” for experienced candidates. “In the past, they’d write competency-based statements – delivering at pace, the bigger picture. and so on,” he said. Now, they will need “a still evidenced but narrative based personal statement, developed through the thinking they have put into their own CV”, he adds.

This approach will be more familiar to those from outside government. “Strengths is a much better way of interviewing new staff from the outside and new graduates because they don’t know what a competency statement is. But they can talk about their travels hacking through the Amazonian forest, for example.”

McNeil urges candidates not to get “hung up on CVs” “It is not about having a particular typed piece of paper – there are lots of different ways of demonstrating the previous experience, including references.”

However, he notes that the system represents a big shift for recruiters in government – “a change away from just a one-dimensional selection to a multidimensional one”.

“In the past, we [in government] have only been interested in: ‘Can you do the job?’. Not: ‘Will you bring energy and commitment, and what kind of culture do you want to work in?’ We haven’t been in that business, we are now.”

In some of the early experiments with the new system, it is the recruiters – and in particular, interview panel members – who were “more spooked” by the changes, Hillsdon says, explaining that recruiters felt they had lost a “reference point” and a well-trodden methodology.

“Competencies tell you whether people can do the job, but not whether they really want to or what they bring in terms of passion and energy” Richard Hillsdon

As a result, there is a risk, says Hillsdon, that departments could sour on the reform “if they find it introduces more angst through less transparency and consistency in the process”. As they will decide which elements of the success profiles to match to each role, this will be crucial to the success of the reforms.

“I think that the recruiters will do it. There is no reason why we wouldn’t want to do these things if properly trained. Whether they will want to create really elaborate assessments, I’m not sure they will and whether resources will allow.”

“Where the real effort needs to take place is in the implementation and deployment,” he says. “We need to be very clear with people about what it is and what its purpose is. It is about allowing an individual’s full self and contribution to be recognised in all dimensions.”

Candidates will be able to show their suitability in a wider range of ways, he says.

“Experiences as evidenced on your CV, references, qualifications, these are all being taken into account. They may be have previously been taken into account through the sift, but I think we’re now saying to line managers to take this rounded view.”

As a result, the civil service will “need to make sure that, as far as possible, hiring managers are skilful in using it,” McNeil acknowledges. In particular, it is important that the job specs genuinely reflect the role, encompassing the growing functional agenda.

“One of the most striking things to me in on development of success profiles was that when we looked at the standard role profile and shaded yellow all the bits that you can evidence through the competency framework and actually they were very few [areas shaded],” he notes.

“I think for the professions, this means you can start to look at creating a consistent view of the essential criteria for a job – and being very disciplined about that, recognising that there are some things that someone might definitely need for a particular job.”

Top tips for hiring managers

McNeil says that success profiles give recruiters a new way of thinking about all the dimensions of the job, which “places a lot of responsibility and trust in the hiring managers – which I think is a good thing”.

This is focused on two elements – ensuring they define their roles using the broader palette offered by success profiles and making sure their interview skills are up to scratch.

“We will be quite careful about things like training people in using strengths,” he said. “If I think about all the things that I’ve been trained in in my career, I still think the hardest training I’ve done is interview training. It is a learned skill that needs to be maintained. In thinking about things like unconscious bias, people need to be present and investing the effort in doing selection.

“It’s not a skill like learning to ride a bike where you can just get back on it after 20 years – it is more like maintaining your cardiovascular fitness.”

Such an approach also corresponds with best practice for diversity and inclusion, he adds. “You need to make sure that people involved in selection are being reminded of their biases and skills they need to be deploying, and that is where departments, functions and the civil service as a whole is putting its effort.”

McNeil acknowledges that the behaviours set out in success profiles could be seen as “competency framework 2.0” but insists it will be a “really good challenge” to ensure that reforms happen on the ground.

He highlights how success profiles may differ using the example of project management roles. “The success profile for an 18-year-old apprentice in project management versus a band A project leader is going to be quite different,” he said. “Your interests in the 18-year-old’s CV is about their intellectual potential and the evidence that they can demonstrate that they’ve got a certain mindset and strengths.

“You’d want all that in the project leader, but you also want to be sure that you know what they have been doing for the last 10 years in managing projects. That is something which wants to encourage hiring managers to think about, with guidance from their professional and function, about what that should look like.”

The new system will also enable civil servants to plan their career around the strengths and behaviours set out in the success profile.

McNeil says: “Success profiles are linked to jobs, but that doesn’t stop an individual looking at themselves and saying: what is my success profile? What can I match against the jobs that I’m interested in and what is the thing I need to develop to be able to do a particular type of job?

“These are the discussions people should be having with the line managers about what they want to do next. It’s an opportunity to say: ‘I’d like to have this particular piece of experience because in five years’ time I’d love to be doing this’.”

The structure of success profiles – 36 strengths mapped to the nine key behaviours – may eventually change how people are assessed once they are in roles too.

“It is something that, in due course, gives a frame which can be used to performance management to give a broader view – and particularly in terms of development discussions,” he says.

“As an example, we have base camps now for new directors and I can talk about what the civil service thinks a director looks like in terms of behaviours and the strengths they should be demonstrating. And in that we were talking about success profiles as a way of framing one’s own development. That’s a key part of it.”

Such a change would require discussion with trade unions, who have been positive about the development of success profiles so far.

“Success profiles are linked to jobs, but that doesn’t stop an individual looking at themselves and saying: what is my success profile?” Rupert McNeil

Neil Rider, the head of FDALearn and Keyskills at the FDA union said it was a positive development and would like to see the ‘behaviours’ aspect adopted as soon as possible, but added there are elements of the strengths that need to be addressed, particularly around equality and diversity. “We have been engaging CSEP and have had a very positive response, so we are hopeful that these concerns can be addressed ahead of the wider rollout next year.”

Dave Allen, negotiations officer from Prospect also “cautiously welcomed” the reforms as some people struggled to demonstrate their skills with the competency framework.

“We recognise [the new system] will require quite a culture change,” he added, “and it will need quite an educational piece to support that.”

The Cabinet Office has agreed a schedule with departments to roll out the new system in the months ahead in order to ensure that culture change can take place  – “we are in the beta stage”, says McNeil, who says that the feedback from HMRC and DfE is “really great”. What is really fantastic is that the feedback is good on all dimensions – from unsuccessful candidates and their sense of the experience, from people who have got jobs to the hiring managers and the people that are in the process.

He expects to know if the changes have had the desired effects in two to three years, and he wants as much feedback as he can get. “We need to monitor it in real time and it is very important that our trade union partners and individual civil servants give direct feedback about how their experience, because that will allow us to change it. Let me know personally. It would be great to know.”

  • Dods Training is helping departments prepare for success profiles. For more information email

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