In his final interview as civil service chief people officer, Rupert McNeil talks about his proudest achievements, and the reasons for his departure

Rupert McNeil doesn’t mind a crisis. Or, in his words, he “doesn’t have a particular aversion to them”. The times he’s been most stressed out during his years in government have, indeed, been “inversely correlated to crises”. This is why, when asked to recall his worst day as a civil servant, he cites an episode so frustrating that it had him walking around St James’s Park muttering “I’m too old for this sh*t.”

He won’t reveal details – except that he’d just come out of “a meeting with a number of people”. 

“That was a moment, and I got over it,” he says. “I have an excellent coach and I think he was a bit surprised. It all got resolved, but, you know, there are moments like that in any job.” 

McNeil’s mood as he sits down for a virtual interview with CSW a few weeks before leaving Whitehall couldn’t be more different. He waxes lyrical, philosophical and even zoological about the civil service, peppering his answers with quotes from everyone from Immanuel Kant to cyberpunk author William Gibson. (The zoological metaphor takes the form of a man-of-war jellyfish: the civil service is not “a single enterprise” but “multiple organisms that come together into one big organism”.)  

It’s clear that what has energised him most during his seven years in government has been having the opportunity to influence those many organisms, moving them along the arc of change and enabling them to respond to crises with much greater cooperation than would have been possible a decade or so ago. It is this – rather than meetings fraught with small-p politics – which has made his time as civil service chief people officer “the best job he’s ever done”. 

If that’s the case, why leave? Or, as Mrs Merton might have put it, what first attracted McNeil back into a highly lucrative role in the private sector?

He laughs, but goes on to explain that the main reason he’s off is because he “absolutely believes in term limits”.

“I think that any job is like an S curve: you have your biggest impact in the middle. And then if you’re doing your job right, your team should be carrying on the momentum"

“I think that any job is like an S curve: you have your biggest impact in the middle. And then if you’re doing your job right, your team should be carrying on the momentum. And you need to give space to people. I mean, I also gave my wife the impression that I’d do this job for three years. And then EU exit came along, Covid came along…” 

His next venture will be 3XO, which stands for Optimal Organisational Outcomes. It is, according to its shiny new website, an advisory firm dedicated to supporting boards and their executive teams to design and deliver their people strategies. McNeil is one of the co-founders. Being at the helm of this kind of outfit is something he has been wanting to do for 10 years, he says.  

McNeil was government’s inaugural CPO. Does he think the role has been a success so far?

“I hope it’s been a success. I think functional leadership jobs have been a success, let’s put it in that way. If you look at the past decade, you’ve got two-and-a-bit periods. You’ve got the period from the coalition government in 2010-2015 where you have Francis Maude coming in, setting up the functions and asking some of the questions like ‘Why do we do things so differently in government? Why can’t we do things as well as the best parts of the private sector?’” McNeil then launches into a rather technical explanation of how functional leaders have influenced the S-curve of civil service effectiveness, which has sped up with the onset of Brexit and Covid. 

Although he seems more comfortable using the first person plural when asked about reforms he’s spearheaded – perhaps out of modesty, perhaps due to his self-confessed preference for working in teams – when McNeil does mention things he is “proud to be associated with”, he usually frames the work as setting a foundation or creating the conditions for future improvements.

When reflecting on the work of the HR function, for example, he skims through a series of complex reforms to civil service pensions, the creation of a central recruiting resource and most recently a consulting hub, before summarising: “I think we’ve been reasonably effective at incubating things and moving them on to the next place.”

It’s here he uses the man-of-war jellyfish analogy, explaining that it is the job of functional leaders to spread good practice across the whole civil service and ensure its component organisations can work well together. It is in moments of crisis that the value of this work is shown, he says, pointing to the collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion as a “signature moment where you could see things had demonstrably changed” thanks to the commercial function. For the HR function, he picks the response to Brexit, when his team was able to rapidly stand up an “emergency resourcing hub” to broker arrangements which moved people between departments as needed. “That was a huge change in the system, and actually we got even better at it with the Covid response,” he says.

“There was a moment in the canteen, it must have been about February 2020, with [chief medical officer] Chris Whitty and [DHSC perm sec] Chris Wormald, who said: ‘This thing’s coming from China, we’re going to need to set up a team…’ Two hundred people in two weeks, and we just got that under way.” 

“There was a moment in the canteen, about February 2020, with Chris Whitty and Chris Wormald, who said: 'This thing’s coming from China, we’re going to need to set up a team…’ Two hundred people in two weeks, and we just got that under way" 

While McNeil often talks about the wider functional agenda, he does see a specific role for HR as more than just another “enabler” which lets organisations achieve their aims. Since it works with people, rather than money or technology, HR has “a particular character, influencing culture and serving, to some extent, as the machinery of organisational conscience”. This includes the responsibility of helping staff to learn and develop, and he cites setting up the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit as “a huge and really important change”. But HR is also “the heart of diversity and inclusion”, he says.

“How do you build a civil service that represents citizens across the UK and then, when it gets the best people from all those areas, ensure they’re working really effectively together?” he asks. He goes on to describe the civil service’s new D&I strategy – released a few weeks ago – as “hugely important, because it brought together people who might be thought to have quite different views”, from ministers down to staff networks. It was created, he says, “in a very collaborative way, without compromising, without diluting” and “hasn’t shied away from tricky issues – broadening the definition of what we mean by diversity.”

That said, the strategy does seem to avoid certain words that are usually associated with equality, diversity and inclusion. The document contains no mention of sex or gender, nor of the words “race” or “racial”. It uses “minority ethnic” just once and “disability” twice. The decision to broaden diversity beyond these traditional categories reflects, McNeil says, “thinking about this topic, which is that people have multiple identities. You need to recognise that and it’s not that we are focusing on one particular group, it’s that all groups matter”.

This broadening means civil service leaders can also address issues around socio-economic and regional diversity – neither of which fall under traditional “protected characteristics” of the Equality Act but which the civil service “should be really interested in”. McNeil is also keen to stress a focus on neurodiversity, an issue he has become much more aware of during his time in government. 

“To take a very basic example – not a neurotypical one – but large chunks of the male population are red-green colourblind, and yet we still produce RAG ratings, where we don’t put R, A and G in circles. That’s an example of not thinking about what the world is actually like.”

Yet issues around race, sex and disability remain important, and the strategy provides the civil service with both a lens to consider those challenges and tools to address them, he says. “You’ve got to look at all the data and ask: where are the problem areas?” 

He notes that the SCS, particularly the top grades, are still “predominantly white, with disability not as visible as you would expect. So I think you’ve got to keep being very proactive and vocal about those areas,” McNeil says. He praises staff networks’ “constructive impatience” about why certain groups are still not supported. 

Yet while the data is showing (slow) progress in areas such as gender diversity, one trend in civil service HR is not so positive. According to an update on the Declaration of Government Reform, the proportion of appointments to the SCS from external applicants has halved over the past decade (from 42% in 2010-11 to 20% in 2019-20), despite repeated attempts to encourage greater movement between sectors. 

McNeil, himself an example of a successful cross-sector move, is optimistic that this trend will soon reverse. He points to the first cross-government policy recruitment campaign, which was conducted in response to Brexit and Covid in 2020. “Around 65% of the successful applicants for those roles were external,” he says. “You wouldn’t necessarily think that was the case but it shows that [external applicants can succeed] even in jobs that you might traditionally think were more about having knowledge of government.”

He draws two points from this experience. First is the need to be careful in drafting job requirements. “You need to define what you want to recruit, articulate it well, and don’t put non-essential criteria in there. So don’t say ‘must have worked with ministers’ when ‘should have experience working with senior stakeholders’ is what you actually mean.”

“You need to define what you want to recruit and articulate it well. So don’t say ‘must have worked with ministers’ when ‘should have experience working with senior stakeholders’ is what you actually mean”

Secondly, the government needs to be better at communicating the “value proposition” it offers to external applicants. “You’re never going to join any public sector organisation anywhere in the world for the money. You can always earn more somewhere else.”

“[Government] needs to pay enough to be in the game, but you have many other factors like the purpose, the interest, and increasingly – this is where it links to the GCSU and to the functions – the opportunity to learn.” 

While the civil service can never rival the private sector on pay, there is still scope to improve a system which does not properly reward progression or help to drive workforce plans. A pay system which is – according to unions, pay bodies and government alike – in serious need of an overhaul. Reform is on the way, in the shape of a capability-based approach which will determine pay for senior officials using performance assessment frameworks focused on professional skills and leadership. Pay bands will correspond to levels within these frameworks, and the changes are set to be introduced over the next two financial years.  

Although it will be McNeil’s successor who oversees it, he says he is “incredibly proud” of the work done so far to enable this. “We actually have a proposition that everyone wants to deliver. We’re doing pilots at the moment. We’re looking to do the rollout of the method of assessment, among other things, in the course of 2022-23, and first payments [under the new system] to be in the 23-24 year.”

Money to fund the reforms has been agreed with the Treasury and detailed in spending review settlements, and producing the evidence to reach this point has “taken about four or five years,” he says. The important thing now will be to be “really rigorous about how we assess capability,” he adds, but overall this is a “huge, once in a generation opportunity that has to be taken”.

Despite the positive work from the HR teams, this is a government that has at times almost been at war with the civil service – from the defenestration of perm secs and briefings against them, to vicious quotes in the press from ministers’ anonymous allies about “complacent” civil servants refusing to leave their sofas and return to the office. All of which is terrible for staff morale. 

What can civil service leaders like McNeil do about it?

The question is hard for any official to answer, and McNeil is so diplomatic that one would have to read very hard between the lines for any hint that the current state of affairs is less than ideal.

“There are lots of different components there, so let’s try and break them out,” he begins. “Let’s start with the fact that we’re in a unique environment, with ministers who are members of parliament and are ultimately accountable to their constituents. I’ve actually got a huge amount of sympathy for how hard that job is.” 

He goes on to say that he would separate out why people are critical. Sometimes it’s because they’re frustrated by the lack of pace or outcomes. “By the way, I’m talking generically – shareholders… clients… maybe ministers are in the same category. You’ve got to listen to what they’re saying, to what they actually want, and then ask: how do you deliver it, and how do you explain what the constraints are, and are there ways of delivering it in a different way? And the best civil servants, like the best consultants, like the best executives, know how to say, ‘Well, you want this, but actually there might be a better way to get what you want.’”

"We’re in a unique environment, with ministers who are MPs and are ultimately accountable to their constituents. I’ve got a huge amount of sympathy for how hard that job is” 

He maintains that government has “more agency than we probably realise” in its ability to respond. The civil service has set up a much more rapid response to media stories, he says, and it is really important for individuals to know that the system is backing them when they’re attacked in the media, even if they can’t do much about it.

“Because we can’t control the tweets. And I’ve experienced this personally where I really felt: ‘That’s frustrating.’ But the system backed me, and, you know, it responded to that silly tweet. And that’s fine. I feel like I’m being looked after.” 

The civil service has also become better at preventing journalists from printing lies about named individuals, he says. “In one of those cases, I was able to go back [to the reporter] and say, ‘Well that’s absolutely not true, so do you really want to print that?’ So I think we’ve become more proactive. Because civil servants do not have the right of reply that others have.”

Attacks don’t always focus on individuals; some seem to question the very existence and value of the civil service. Take, for example, the interview given by Jacob Rees-Mogg in February. The newly-appointed minister for government efficiency questioned whether the current civil service headcount is “providing value” for the taxpayer, and told The Times he wanted to cut 65,000 jobs – around one in seven civil servants at the latest count. “Do we make [people’s lives] better by employing large numbers of civil servants? The answer is probably no because the British public helps pay for them. And so you’ve got to get it under control,” he mused.

Does McNeil think these are helpful interventions? “Well, headcount is a function of activity,” the CPO begins in response. “What work actually needs to be done? One of the things which I’m finishing off at the moment is some work with the Government Consulting Hub, functions and departments on operating models, and on what the FTE implications of those operating models are.

“There are so many routes to this. So let’s take corporate services, HR being one of them. Have we de-duplicated? Do things need to be in the centre or in the department? Are there things which one department can do for other departments?” 

All of this, he suggests, is the right way to decide on headcounts, along with fundamental questions like: “What are our resources, and what activity do we need to perform?” But there is another element to consider in workplace planning, too: the fact that new jobs and roles are emerging all the time, jobs “that we can’t even imagine will be created”. 

McNeil is clearly a man who loves to think about the future, and how we get there. Another piece of important work he cites in this area is the Places for Growth programme, which seeks to relocate civil service roles out of London. He describes this scheme as a “big, game-changing thing”, but he also hopes that, in time, it will go a lot further. His vision for 2040 is for the civil service to be spread over hundreds of locations across the UK.

“I’m in the HMRC hub in Canary Wharf as we speak, but wouldn’t it be great if actually I was sitting above a magistrate’s court, next to local authority and health service employees and others, and then I have my sandwiches with them? And so public servants would be doing our work in a really integrated way. Micro hubs – that’s what I would love to see.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell - From the editor: Whatever else 2024 will be, it will be a year of change


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