Cabinet secretary admits civil service leadership must be improved

The Cabinet Office boss has admitted more must be done to improve leadership within the Civil Service and to ensure staff are working in the correct areas.


Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) over the findings of the Capability Review Programme, head of the Civil Service Gus O’Donnell said work was already under way to address the problems. He has led the capability reviews since they began in 2006 to improve leadership across Whitehall.


The most recent reviews reporting on progress on improving leadership found HR chiefs were being hampered by senior leaders who were unwilling to make unpopular decisions over recruitment and promotion.


Edward Leigh, chair of the PAC, challenged O’Donnell over findings that civil servants still considered their departments not to be well managed.


He said: “I don’t think parts of the Civil Service are very good at managing people. They are not very good at managing and motivating staff.”


O’Donnell replied: “This is something we recognise we have to improve and it’s something we are putting a lot of effort into improving. I think the results [from reviews earlier this year] are disappointing and we absolutely need to improve them, and we have in hand a set of measures to do that.”


He said he was working closely with the top 200 civil servants on leadership training and had created the ‘base camp’ programme to train all new senior civil servants on the responsibilities of leadership.


O’Donnell added he was also trying to reduce turnover of project staff by encouraging them to stay in posts for at least four years and ensuring civil servants visit the “frontline” where services are delivered to see how they can be improved.


When challenged over departments’ failure to release and transfer civil servants around the service to share skills and experiences, O’Donnell said: “There is a great tendency for departments to try and solve their own problems and think about retaining their best people to deliver for their secretary of state and permanent secretary.


“What I am trying to do is encourage the Civil Service to think of itself as delivering for the government as a whole.


“I have worked very hard to get the permanent secretaries to operate as a collegiate and see themselves as working for the whole of the Civil Service and the whole of the government, and to be prepared to share and learn from each other. I think that collegiate atmosphere is starting to come through.”

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