Changing the narrative on civil service careers: Five minutes with Fiona Ryland, the UK government’s chief people officer

By on 10/03/2024 | Updated on 07/03/2024

Fiona Ryland, the UK government’s chief people officer, discusses opportunities in the civil service as well as key projects she’s working on related to skills, learning, and AI in recruitment.

This is part of a ‘Five minutes’ series featuring speakers from the forthcoming Global Government Forum Innovation conference (London, 19-20 March).

What are you most interested in discussing at Innovation 2024?

Innovation 2024 is an amazing opportunity for us to learn from countries around the world and also to share the work we have been doing across government to ensure we get the right people with the right skills in the right roles at the right time.

In my session on attracting talent, I’m particularly excited to discuss how we can do more to attract people to the civil service who wouldn’t normally think about working for government. Working for the civil service is inspiring and you get to contribute to an amazing mission and purpose. The roles here are also of a scale, complexity and diversity that is difficult to find elsewhere in the UK. We need to make sure we are communicating that as part of our narrative about why people should join 

What drew you to a career in the civil service?

The civil service offers some things which hardly any other organisation can and that’s the ability to work on hugely impactful projects that have the potential to really change people’s lives. The mission we have as civil servants is unrivalled, and I love that.

In my case, I felt there was no more impactful HR job in the UK than Government Chief People Officer. The scale, diversity and complexity of the civil service means that the opportunities for development here are endless and that is of course something I couldn’t pass up.

What more do you want to achieve before you retire? 

In short, I want to leave having made a difference. I want to have delivered on the People Plan, which has huge ambitions to transform the civil service by 2027. I want to make our people processes simpler, faster and more supportive, and I want to really change the narrative on the civil service to make it what it should be, which is one of the most attractive organisations to join in the country.

Register now: Innovation 2024

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your working life? 

The best piece of advice I ever received was to be myself. You can always admire and learn from the way people do their jobs, but ultimately you have to be true to yourself and your own style. There are many ways to be a great leader but you have to do it your way.

What do you like most about working in the civil service?

There are lots of things. The people are an obvious one. I’ve rarely had the honour to be surrounded by so many smart, committed, resilient, adaptable, creative people in my career. And that’s a huge inspiration for me to see and be a part of.

The difference we make is another one too. The chance to be a part of the work which really makes a difference. And of course the development you get here is like no other. You can learn so much and have so many opportunities to do what you love, which is something really special.

Which country’s civil service or which government department or agency are you most inspired by and why?

One that comes to mind as we’ve worked with them a lot is Canada and the way they approach training their leaders and line managers. We are looking at implementing some of their best ideas here and so I’ve always loved to learn more from them and what they are up to.

Are there any projects or innovations in your country that might be valuable to your peers overseas? 

We are leading on numerous projects that other organisations can really learn from. Our Government Skills Campus which is due to go live this year, is a major step towards ensuring we have a consistent world-class learning offer. We are also developing  standards and training to support our line managers. We all know the difference that a great line manager can make and it is important that our line managers are confident and well trained. 

Our Shared Services Strategy is really interesting as well and will improve our HR, finance and commercial processes as well as making us more efficient. In addition, the Government Recruitment Service is breaking ground in how we harness AI effectively. If you want to learn more, feel free to ask!

Read more: `‘Bring humbleness and creativity’: Five minutes with Spain’s Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo

What attributes do you most value in people?

Kindness and honesty are really important to me. I think it’s also really important to do what you are saying you’re going to do. You can’t build trust and understanding without honesty and I’ve always tried my hardest to live by that.

What’s your favourite thing to do at the weekends? 

My favourite thing would be to watch Leyton Orient FC, which is of course one of the best football teams in the world (I wish). When I was growing up, ever since the age of three my dad used to take me to all the games and in a household of five siblings having that time with him one on one was really special. Ever since then, watching ‘the O’s’ has been my guilty pleasure.

What is your favourite book? 

My favourite book is My Family and Other Animals. I love it. It’s funny, uplifting, warm, all the things you want to have in a book. The true story behind it is fascinating as well.

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