Civil service leaders to be grilled on "institutional memory" at new academy

Civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil says leadership academy, launching later this year, will ask leaders to learn from successes and failures "of their peers and predecessors"

Civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil stresses the need for leaders to learn from the past in his Institute for Government (IfG) address. Image credit: IfG

By Matt Foster

12 Jan 2017

Aspiring civil service leaders will be expected to grapple with real-world case studies from Whitehall's history as part of a training revamp outlined by chief people officer Rupert McNeil.

The civil service leadership academy was first mooted in late 2015, and is currently under development by the Cabinet Office.

Last year's government-wide civil service workforce plan, overseen by McNeil, promised that the new academy would help "develop leaders who are confident, inspiring and able to create a culture where staff are empowered, listened to and valued".

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McNeil, drafted into Whitehall last year from the private sector, used a keynote speech to the Institute for Government this week to shed more light on the academy, promising that it would place a heavy emphasis on "institutional memory", with potential leaders put through their paces by learning about the challenges facing their predecessors.

The academy would, McNeil said, have "three strands" when it launches later this year, including a focus on the "common elements" of leadership as well as the specific needs of their individual organisations.

According to the chief people officer, organisational leaders will also be expected to show not only a "mastery in their professional area", but a broader understanding of the expertise possessed by other senior staff.

"The policy professional needs to be able to interact effectively with the digital and commercial specialist and vice versa," he said. "So the second strand of the Leadership Academy is 'technical' – enabling people to be effective, intelligent clients of other disciplines."

McNeil said the "complexity of the system" in which senior leaders were expected to work, "with multiple stakeholders and complex, interdependent sets out outcomes" meant the civil service also needed chiefs who could "learn from both their successes and their failures, and those of their peers and predecessors".

He added: "That is not just about the hard outcomes. It is also about ensuring that these leaders can be resilient and confident, under extreme pressures.

"At the heart of this are case studies. And with the support of an expert panel and academic institutions, we are developing the first sets of case studies, to better capture and leverage our institutional memory."

The need for the civil service to do more to draw on its institutional memory was recently highlighted by the former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson, who told CSW that officials too frequently neglected the lessons of the past.

“The longer I worked in the civil service, the more conscious I became that history repeats itself,” he said.

“The Treasury's own files often contain a lot of relevant information, but it's extraordinary how often officials tend to develop policy from first principles rather than going back and getting a deeper understanding of why we are where we are now, and what has informed the development of policy."

"Full recognition"

Elsewhere in his IfG address, McNeil called for a greater number of leadership roles in the civil service – traditionally filled by Fast Stream alumni and those with policy experience – to be handed to staff with direct, frontline experience – or what he called the "vital set of operational delivery profession roles" in the public sector.

"I've been privileged to spend time with colleagues performing these roles," McNeil said.

"Within the civil service they include the work coaches who guide and counsel people using Jobcentres and receiving Universal Credit; prison and probation officers; and members of the Border Force, among others.

"These roles don't just exist in the civil service. I think this type of carer or case worker role can be found in local authorities [...], in education [...], and in the NHS.

"Policy development and design is a crucial activity within government, but I believe very strongly that we need to give full recognition to these other professions as well."

The chief people officer also told CSW that forthcoming changes to the controversial civil service performance management system would emphasise the need for "quality conversations" between line managers and their staff (see separate story).

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