Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Gill Rider, head of the Civil Service Capability Group and a Companion of the CMI, argues that as the civil service faces extraordinary challenges, strong leadership has never been more important.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

My three years in the civil service have shown me that - in spite of the many ways in which the public and private sectors differ - the biggest leadership challenges are common to us all. So, too, are many of the solutions. But the context and objectives, both political and organisational, are much more complex and difficult in the public sector.

My role is to help develop the civil service leaders of today and tomorrow, and to ensure that Whitehall departments are building the capabilities they need to deliver for the Government and for citizens. As public policy issues are becoming increasingly complex, and citizens' expectations of public services grow even as their trust in their public institutions is tested, it has never been more imperative that the civil service stretch itself to be the best it can be - and that it should be seen to be doing so.

I oversee a programme that does just that: the Capability Reviews. Government departments are independently assessed against an aspirational statement of how we want the civil service to be - the Capability Model. The model provides a framework against which our strengths and weaknesses in leadership, strategy and delivery can be measured. We do it in a very public way: reports are published (see requiring us to be ever more open as we work to build on our strengths and address our weaknesses.

Civil service leaders are held to account for their capability-improvement actions. Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell has committed much time and energy to the programme, regularly attending board meetings to discuss progress in reviewed departments. His leadership and commitment has sent a clear message to Whitehall's leaders that he is serious about achieving a step change in civil service capability.

But it is the permanent secretaries - the most senior civil servants in each department - and their boards who must own and drive their change programmes. Their buy-in from the start has been crucial. Publication of reviews, and the possibility of comparison against their peers, has maintained the spark in the system.

Results so far have been encouraging. Departments have made strides towards more effective performance: departmental boards are working as corporate leadership teams; they are more visible in their departments and are communicating and engaging more with their staff; and they are better at setting strategic objectives and embedding them throughout the organisation in business plans and personal objectives.

The programme has made a good start. But the challenges facing the civil service continue to grow, and are exacerbated by the current economic environment. Departments need to focus on three areas. First, to get better at finding new ways of delivering services with the same or lower levels of resource. They will need to learn from what works, building the experience and ideas of front-line public servants into strategy and policy-making at the earliest stages. This is a change of focus for many civil servants.

Second, departments must further improve their skills in collaborating across organisational boundaries, overcoming structural and cultural barriers. We can't solve obesity, or global issues such as climate change, in one department.

Third, people-development will become even more important as departments seek to improve and change. As with most organisations, our people-survey scores tell us that we need to get better at providing more direct feedback to our staff and managing poor performance.

The Cabinet Office supports departments in addressing these issues, as well as measuring their performance. We have, for example, instituted a 'Base Camp' training programme for new members of the senior civil service, ensuring that our leadership cadre across Whitehall understands what we require of them as leaders, especially in their values and behaviours. And we have created a 'Top 200' network, mobilising the 200 most senior officials to work across departments to address the most pressing issues facing the civil service.

The steps we are taking in the civil service reflect the essential truth that to be a high- performing organisation - no matter what sector - you must have and be building great leaders. You must show what is required of them through clear behaviour-driven frameworks, and evaluate performance against those behaviours, as well as results and outcomes delivered. You must provide training and coaching to allow people to learn, and have leaders who consider it their personal mission to identify and develop the next generation. Most importantly, you must promote and recruit in the right image, using succession planning based on performance and leadership behaviours, on potential and on individual aspirations.

Nothing brings a high-performing culture down faster than appointing the wrong role models. Trust is broken when you say one thing and do another. As the management writer Stephen Covey said: 'You can't talk your way out of what you behave yourself into.'

CV: Gill Rider has been head of the Civil Service Capability Group at the Cabinet Office since May 2006. Previously, she spent 27 years at Accenture, running various parts of the worldwide business. Her penultimate role was as operating head for the energy, utilities, natural resources and chemical business in 37 countries, and she was formerly global chief leadership officer, concentrating on Accenture's organisation, change, HR and leadership development.

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