In a momentous year, civil service leaders must be capable of delivering government aims

The NAO's latest report shows the Cabinet Office needs a more coherent and integrated "whole-system" approach to boosting civil service leadership capability
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By Kate Caulkin

13 Mar 2024

From the Brexit and Scottish independence referendums to the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine, UK civil service leadership has had to confront a series of challenges over the past decade, testing the skills of its senior leaders. 

This level of responsibility has naturally led to heightened scrutiny of the senior civil service.. In addition to the findings of the Maude Review into civil service governance and accountability arrangements, which were published last year, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is also in the middle of an inquiry into civil service leadership and reform. 

These reviews may lead to changes in how the SCS operates, including how it approaches the capability of its leaders. With senior civil servants advising ministers whose decisions impact millions of people, this is patently a big deal – which makes the National Audit Office’s new report on civil service leadership capability especially apposite. 

Its publication comes at a time when a number of experienced voices are speaking out on the subject of civil service leadership, with former cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill recently arguing that government should reintroduce a “physical campus” for civil servants and ministers alike to encourage longevity in posts and improve strategic thinking. 

Our report focuses on the need for greater clarity on what the civil service expects of its senior leaders. In setting these expectations, the Cabinet Office (the department responsible for civil service policy) must balance consistent standards with flexibility to meet specific departmental needs. 

As a former employee of the SCS, I often found that the Cabinet Office, the government department I worked for and the profession I belonged to would all establish individual sets of expectations, with significant overlap between the three. 

What is needed instead is a set of expectations shared by all senior civil servants that is then complemented by more specific and role-relevant guidance from the different departments and professions. 

The Cabinet Office has, over time, made some good progress. This includes enhancing its training and development offer, evaluating that offer and improving accountability for leadership capability activities. 

But our report has found limited evidence that the Cabinet Office tests senior civil servants on whether they know what is expected of them, and whether they are effective at striking a balance between consistency and flexibility.  

The Cabinet Office must also do more to deliver a more coherent and integrated "whole-system" approach – including working with departments, government professions and functions – to make sure its activities for boosting leadership capability within the civil service have the desired impact. 

While the Cabinet Office officials interviewed for our report were able to describe a range of areas where they have worked collaboratively across teams, gaps remain in arrangements for monitoring capability and evaluating the effectiveness of actions. 

The SCS has acted to enhance representation among women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and disabled people. It also has ambitions to increase external recruitment, though 80% of recruits came from within the civil service in 2022-23 – virtually the same proportion as in 2018-19. 

To make matters worse, some private sector recruits do not stay long because of a perception that ‘generalist’ skills related to policy advice are valued more highly than specialist skills and experience. They also experience greater feelings of isolation relative to appointees promoted from within the civil service.  

The recently published Civil Service People Plan for 2024-2027 and its stated aim to “improve and speed up recruitment” is at least a welcome attempt by the Cabinet Office to redress this. In a similar vein, this timely report by the Institute for Government on the workings of central government highlights the importance of capable leadership across the SCS. 

During a time when government is facing significant challenges on multiple fronts, not least in managing the after-effects of Covid-19, having a strong and talented cadre of civil service leaders is more crucial than ever – no matter the identity of the governing party come the end of the year. 

Kate Caulkin is director of people and operations management at the National Audit Office

Read the most recent articles written by Kate Caulkin - Civil service reform is back on the agenda; and there’s plenty to be done


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