Top UK civil servants to face Whitehall history lesson at new leadership academy

By on 12/01/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Rupert McNeil, the Government’s chief people officer

A new academy for future UK civil service leaders will require participants to draw on Whitehall’s “institutional memory” and learn from the civil service’s historical successes and failures.

The UK government’s chief people officer, Rupert McNeil, used a speech yesterday at the Institute for Government think-tank to set out new details on a workforce development plan for the British civil service published last year.

One of the plan’s headline proposals was the establishment of a leadership academy for Fast Stream civil servants, now slated to launch later this year.

Explaining the thinking behind the academy, McNeil said it has been identified as the most effective vehicle for developing a “common approach” to leadership development – transcending the professional or technical specialisms of individual civil servants.

McNeil said the academy will be built around three main areas: fostering good organisational leadership skills; encouraging effective interaction with specialists from other disciplines; and helping leaders to navigate complex organisational landscapes, power structures and political sensitivities.

On this latter point, McNeil said: “We need to build leaders who can learn both from their successes and their failures and those of their peers and predecessors. And that’s not just about hard outcomes; it’s about ensuring these leaders can be resilient and confident under extreme pressures.”

At the core of this element of the academy’s operation will be a series of case studies, which is being drawn up by an expert panel and academics to “better capture and leverage our institutional memory”, McNeil said.

McNeil added that ultimately he wants to see a civil service in which people in frontline delivery roles can progress to the very highest level – a path taken by very few top officials, such as deceased HMRC chief Lesley Strathie.

“We should be designing a system, bluntly, that means it is conceivable that someone could join as an apprentice and become a cabinet secretary,” said McNeil. “Most of the people coming into the civil service are in operational/delivery professions – so how do I take someone who’s come in working in a Job Centre or as a prison officer and allow them to acquire all the skills that would let them be as effective as possible in a Whitehall policy job? That’s completely doable, but that’s why we need the career pathways so that’s very clear.”

After his speech, McNeil was challenged by MP Bernard Jenkin, chair of the parliamentary Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, who suggested that few senior civil servants remain in a post for long enough to acquire essential skills and “add value”.

McNeil acknowledged this concern, and said it’s something the government is addressing. “The way we’re looking at this is through things like the Major Projects Leadership Academy, where we’ve been building up project management skills,” he replied. “And we’ve now stretched that out so that we have the Orchestrating Major Projects course, which is for people who are leading people leading projects.”

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See also:

UK reforms Fast Stream tests to broaden intake

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

British MP calls for fundamental overhaul of civil service


About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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