Rupert McNeil, chief people officer for the UK Civil Service: exclusive interview

By on 15/06/2016 | Updated on 15/06/2016

Eager to bring in new skills, the British civil service is recruiting from the world of business. Fresh from the world of banking, its new HR chief explains how he intends to make private businesses just as keen to recruit civil servants

In recent years the British civil service, keen to broaden its management skills and improve its capabilities in fields such as commercial and digital, has begun actively recruiting specialist professionals and senior leaders from outside government. This agenda sits with the Cabinet Office’s central HR function, which oversees recruitment, workforce capability and leadership development across the civil service. So it makes sense that the HR function’s new head, chief people officer Rupert McNeil, is himself a migrant from the world of business.

Indeed, McNeil comes from the commercial heartlands of consultancy and banking: his CV includes stints developing pay policy for the Confederation of British Industry and overseeing HR at Barclays, Aviva and Lloyds. In the years before the collapse of Northern Rock in autumn 2007, he specialised in fashioning pay packages for bankers and managers – first as a partner in consultancy Deloitte’s executive compensation practice, then as Barclay’s executive management director. What did he learn from those experiences?

“It’s something I’ve thought a lot about,” he replies, arguing that organisations “need to be very attentive to their cultures. You get what you reward – and one of the attractive things about the civil service is that, compared to private sector organisations, reward is not a big deal; it’s not a driving factor, particularly at senior levels.”

McNeil sounds a little relieved to be working with people who are “there to do good: they’re not there to get paid huge amounts of money – though that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be paid appropriately!” In other ways, though, the civil service feels quite familiar: he’s worked in big corporates and in professional partnerships, he explains, and the civil service “feels more like a professional partnership. It’s an organisation of professionals, and that has a lot of power and a lot of resilience.”

“It’s also naturally collaborative,” he adds, though “not quite as good as it could be at sharing lessons from one area to another.”

Rupert McNeil Cheif People Officer 1

Making the functions function

Improving HR workers’ ability to share lessons across government is one of McNeil’s key tasks, at least in the field of HR – for the UK civil service is currently strengthening its professional functions, creating new ways to “collaborate and share across departments”. This, McNeil adds, is “hard to do in the civil service – and, I suspect, in many global equivalents – because it’s necessarily an organisation of organisations of organisations!” Building coherent networks to strengthen collaboration horizontally across government is tricky when most civil service structures flow vertically down from ministers to core departments and then into the agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

However, McNeil says he’s arrived at the right time: HR is enjoying a renaissance. Civil service bodies, he believes, are focusing on three key assets: “Your technology, your capital and your people – and that makes it a very exciting time for people in the HR profession”.

The HR function’s core tasks, he explains, include supporting departments’ workforce planning and recruitment. McNeil’s strategic workforce planning team helps departments marshal the skills to deliver the policy and organisational change agendas set out in their ‘single departmental plans’. And his staff help the departments and functions develop their recruitment strategies, working to ensure that recruitment meets the needs of the civil service as a whole. “A good HR function runs the signals on the track,” he says. “The departments and the professions are the freight, and we help control it and get it from A to B.”

Getting ahead of the game

Meanwhile, McNeil is working with cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and the Civil Service Board to “identify some game-changers which we can put in place over the next four to five years.”

This emerging workforce strategy, he explains, has four main strands. The first he calls “permeability or porosity”: the aim is to make it “much easier for people to come in and out of public service at various points in their careers, and to make it much more the norm”.

At the heart of this strand lies a reformed, universal system for managing secondments into and out of government. People from business and the wider public sector are, he says, realising that there’s “a lot they can learn [in the civil service] because of the scale of what we deal with, the complexity.” Outside government, “it could be quite late in your career before you get end-to-end ownership of projects and programmes which in the civil service [you might manage] a bit earlier.” McNeil hopes that introducing a more “industrialised” approach to secondments will support much greater movement of staff between civil service bodies, private companies and the wider public sector. (See our news piece for more details.)

Rupert McNeil Cheif People Officer 3

On the right path

The second strand involves strengthening career paths within the civil service. The functions will play a key role here, he says, but people must also develop the skills to work across disciplines: they need “the chance to become intelligent clients of other professions,” becoming “the owner of an end-to-end process.”

This, he adds, represents a step on from the civil service’s traditional focus on developing ‘generalist’ leaders – people with a good breadth of experience but few specialist skills. “We also need to give people time to get depth of experience,” he says, keeping staff in roles for long enough to “acquire the experience to move up their career path and have solid foundations.” This, he adds, will strengthen porosity by giving civil servants more options in the wider job market. “There isn’t any profession that doesn’t have some kind of external equivalent, and this helps people to be marketable in that environment”, he says.

The third strand concerns leadership skills. In McNeils’ view, the government’s new ‘leadership academy’ must focus on preparing people “to be leaders in a system that goes far beyond the civil service.” The need to work effectively with external partners such as suppliers, interest groups and other public servants brings “a convening aspect to the role; an expert aspect; a huge stakeholder management aspect.”

Including inclusion

The final strand concerns diversity. “We’re setting ourselves a very clear objective to be the most inclusive employer in the UK,” says McNeil, highlighting progress on women leaders and LGBT employees. Here, three key areas of concern remain. The first is getting “proper black and minority ethnic representation in the senior civil service” – and this is “the thing that particularly keeps me awake.”

The second area of concern is disability, where McNeil accepts that there’s a problem in providing ‘adjustments’ – the technology and specialist equipment required by disabled people. “Workplace adjustment needs to be more coordinated,” he says.

To pursue this agenda, the chief people officer manages a “team within the HR function which is specifically focused on clearing the way on the disability issue.” The agenda is also championed by Department for Transport permanent secretary Philip Rutnam, and McNeil sees this lead from the top as crucial to progress. Whilst running HR at Lloyds Banking Group – which successfully reformed its adjustment systems a few years ago – McNeil saw the value of “putting clear accountability with senior leaders, and then measuring things.”

Third, the civil service is engaged in a major push to strengthen its role in social mobility. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to open up a new front on social mobility,” he says. This agenda is championed by HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson (see our interview for more details), and McNeil says it involves “looking at every aspect of the employer life cycle, from recruitment through promotion, development etcetera.”

Moving on up

Civil service chief executive John Manzoni has, McNeil recalls, emphasised that recruitment and promotion should reward “true potential, rather than polish”. To achieve this, the civil service is moving on a broad front – by, for example, strengthening flexible working, establishing Fast Stream recruitment centres outside London, stripping people’s names out of job application forms, and advertising more roles externally.

The Cabinet Office minister has also announced that questions about job applicants’ criminal records will be taken out of civil service recruitment forms: under the ‘ban the box’ policy, this data will be gathered later in the process. The aim, McNeil explains, is to avoid deterring eligible applicants from applying: to find the best candidate, it’s best to maximise the number of applications. “The broader the funnel at the start, the better: this is a way of broadening the funnel.”

When he blogged on the new policy, McNeil attracted 57 comments – many of them critical. Such comments can be very valuable, he notes: “They may well be pointing out problems in our processes that we need to address.” But he emphasises that they’re not necessarily representative, and must be considered alongside other data: “If I was seeing those comments in the [Civil Service] People Survey – which is also anonymous, but people approach in a slightly different way and is certainly more representative – then that would tell me I’ve got particular problems”.

Rupert McNeil Cheif People Officer 2

Managing the performance of performance management

McNeil has some experience of handling negative responses to managers’ blogs: an intranet post he wrote at Lloyds Banking Group prompted such angry comments that it was covered by the Sunday Times. Even that response, however, couldn’t top the 500-odd comments – 95% of them hostile – left beneath former head of the civil service Sir Bob (now Lord) Kerslake’s April 2014 blog on the introduction of a new performance management system.

That system has been widely criticised for introducing ‘forced ranking’, meaning that managers are asked to rate a certain proportion of staff as performing below an acceptable standard. And McNeil seems to be in no hurry to defend it. “Globally, in performance management systems, probably the greatest problem is that there’s too much attention on the process and the mechanics and not enough on the critically-important human interaction,” he comments, arguing that performance management “should be happening throughout the year, as part of the regular relationship between the line manager and the employee.”

Outside the civil service, he adds, many organisations are saying that “we’re going to really focus on the frequency of feedback and interaction, and less on the mechanical stuff”. And he reveals that the civil service is currently running a number of “trials and pilots of different ways of doing performance management. There’s a strong appetite at every level [for reforms], and we’re talking to our union partners to see if we can make it as relevant as possible.”

Learning from the public sector

Rupert McNeil has a sensitive job, and he’s careful in what he says: he knows how easy it is for new entrants to the civil service to trip over longstanding tensions between the professions; between the centre and the departments; between senior leaders and those outside the top jobs. But on performance management, he does seem to think that his experiences in private business hold valuable lessons for the civil service.

In other fields, he says, the private sector is only now catching up with the civil service. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he recalls, “we saw this trend in the private sector towards shareholder value – which is a very laudable goal, but not the only goal. What’s really fascinating is seeing how – particularly since the global financial crisis – financial services organisations have become much more customer-centric.”

This emphasis on meeting customers’ needs, he says, “has so many benefits: it focuses everybody on the user; it means that organisations become much less top-down, because the people who understand the user best are at the frontline. What this means, interestingly, is that the private sector is moving towards the ethos that the public sector has always had – and that’s a hugely good thing.”

There’s plenty more that businesses can learn from the civil service, McNeil believes. “I would love to get to the point – which, I believe, we’ll get to in the next four to five years – where we’re doing things that other employers in other sectors are looking at and saying: ‘UK civil servants did that. Why don’t we do it?’” he says. “There have been points in our history where that has been the case.”

Today’s civil service is eager to recruit talent from the private sector; but in a couple of years, McNeil believes, that flow of staff will be matched by an equal stream of people moving in the other direction. With the help of the civil service’s new workforce strategy and his four “game-changers”, this immigrant from the world of business hopes to turn the tables again.

For more, see our news piece on the new secondments scheme

The Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

Rupert McNeil on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we’ve started asking interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Rupert McNeil’s answers –  click below to watch his full answers in a GGF video.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you?

“I’m going to take quite a macro example of an idea from abroad that’s helped us in the civil service, going right back to Northcote-Trevelyan in 1854. The model for the meritocratic recruitment the civil service operates actually came from Imperial China, and that principle lies at the heart of the way in which we’ve done recruitment ever since. So I think we owe a huge debt to that lesson.”

Are there any projects or innovations from this country that you think might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“One of the most interesting innovations in policy making that has come out of the UK in the past decade has been the work of David Halpern and the Behavioural Insights Team. This idea that you can look at the psychology of human behaviour and use it to shape and nudge things towards good policy and outcomes for citizens is hugely important. I’m very excited about its [potential in] the way in which the civil service, for example, does recruitment.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“I was with Chinese counterparts the other day and was struck by how similar the issues that we’re tackling are ¬– whether it’s digital or demographic change or making policy relevant at the front line. We need to take advantage of the collaboration tools that we have through digital technology – so meeting face to face, but collaborating virtually.”

What are the biggest challenges over the next few years?

“There are going to be many challenges which we can’t even contemplate as the UK and humanity move through the 21st century, whether it’s artificial intelligence or climate change or economic crises. And one of the roles that I see any HR function having is making sure that the conditions are there to create leaders who will be ready to help us navigate those times. The UK Civil Service is going to be at the front of tackling those issues, and needs to have the right people. The people we’re hiring now as apprentices and graduates will be the permanent secretaries of the 2040s and they need to be as good as they possibly can be. That’s probably a way of saying: make sure that we have really good, values-based leadership in our public institutions.”

Changing gear, what’s your favourite book?

“One that particularly resonates in this role is a book by James C Scott called Seeing Like a State. It talks about how over-planning and too much rigidity in the way in which people manage governments and organisations almost always fails. It’s always important to leave enough room for things that will surprise you, and to create workforces and leaders who can cope with that type of surprise and deploy all the amazing ingenuity and agility and raw intelligence that human beings have. As he puts it, even the most well-designed factory requires the goodwill and intelligence of the workforce to get the most out of it, and I think that’s true in every walk of life. Great book; I can’t recommend it highly enough.”

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

UK civil service to launch new secondments scheme, says chief people officer

Jon Thompson, former permanent secretary of the UK Ministry of Defence, and now chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs: Exclusive Interview

Interview: John Manzoni, chief executive, UK Civil Service

Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor: EU Referendum interview

The hat-trick: how to achieve savings, better services and public policy goals

UK government’s shared services programme cost more than it saved, report warns

UK Treasury and Cabinet Office urged to help senior officials stand up to ministers

National Audit Office warns over UK civil service cuts

Looking after number one: prioritisation in government

Tom Scholar appointed new permanent secretary of UK Treasury

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

One Comment

  1. Matt, another very interesting piece. Thanks. You might find interesting, if not promising, a three-part article I was invited to write for the Journal of Management Services, a publication of the UK-based Institute for Management Services. [It’s available on their website, or I can provide a combined reprint at] It describes an emerging applied human science, humaneering, that presents especially large organizations with new opportunities to increase the true productivity of workers (i.e., value created / labor cost) . . . not by reducing headcount through automation, but by tapping workers’ now mostly wasted human potential to create value. Looking forward to your next interview piece. Regards, Jim

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