• The civil service must be clearer on what it expects of its senior leaders
  • It should also implement an integrated and coherent ‘whole system’ approach to leadership capability
  • The Senior Civil Service wants to increase external recruitment but 80% of recruits were from within the civil service in 2022-23

The government must develop a clearer approach to leadership capability within the Senior Civil Service (SCS) to ensure it employs the best people to deliver essential projects and services, according to a new National Audit Office (NAO) report.1

The Cabinet Office is responsible for policy relating to the civil service.2 Since 2020, it has adopted new approaches to some of its SCS leadership capability activities, identifying gaps and areas for improvement.

However, the NAO has found that the Cabinet Office has more to do to get the best from the SCS. Its objectives for promoting SCS leadership capability are siloed, relating only to individual activity areas and organisational units (for example, there are separate objectives for the Leadership College for Government and the Senior Talent and Resourcing Team). This means that the Cabinet Office does not know if some activities are duplicated or if there are gaps.

The Cabinet Office has not set any measurable objectives or success criteria for leadership capability in the Government People Group or most individual teams.3 This means it cannot determine whether relevant activities are effective or not. Resolving this is important because these activities all work towards a common outcome: employing capable leaders with the right skills and values.

The NAO found that this is indicative of a lack of an integrated and coherent ‘whole system’ approach more broadly. The Cabinet Office has not fully set out the division of responsibilities between the Government People Group, departments, functions and professions, or the overall strategy for evaluating its work to improve leadership capability.

However, data from the annual Civil Service People Survey does suggest a significant increase in leadership capability over the last decade (albeit from a low base): the proportion of positive responses to leadership-themed questions in the survey rose from 31% in 2012 to 53% in 2020 (before decreasing to 49% in 2022). There is also evidence that the Cabinet Office has drawn on lessons from experience to inform individual leadership capability activities.

While the SCS has become more representative of wider society over time,4 representation of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities remains lower than in grades below the SCS and across the working age population. The SCS continues to be predominantly London-based.5,6 The Cabinet Office lacks robust data on social mobility because the way it is calculated has changed.

The challenge facing the SCS in attracting skilled leaders from diverse backgrounds and sectors increases the risk of ‘group-think’ arising from a narrow set of experiences. The SCS has an ambition to increase the number of external recruits but it is dominated by internal appointees: in 2022-23, 80% of recruits were from within the civil service, 14% were from the private sector and 6% were from the wider public or voluntary sector.

Some private sector recruits do not stay long because of a perception that ‘generalist’ skills related to policy advice are valued more highly than specialist skills and experience gained in the private sector. The Cabinet Office does not have a clear idea of how many appointees leave soon after joining the SCS.

The NAO recommends that the Cabinet Office sets out more clearly who is accountable for different leadership capability activities, the specific outcomes it wants from those activities, and the criteria for judging success.

The Cabinet Office should also analyse enablers and barriers to achieving its objectives for leadership capability; assess where a system-level view of capabilities and needs would be most valuable; and develop a strategy for external recruitment that reflects assessments of priority areas (such as particular skills and organisations).

“The leadership skills of senior civil servants often make the difference between projects and services succeeding or failing.

“The Cabinet Office must be clearer on what it expects of senior civil servants, and how it is going to ensure they have the skills, experience and incentives to provide it.

"Its present approach is fragmented and it needs to develop a more coherent and evidence-based system, so it can secure better value for money and a more effective approach to providing the leaders the civil service needs.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Civil service leadership capability

Notes for editors

  1. The report examines how the civil service ensures it has capable leaders, which is essential to delivering good outcomes from services and value for money for the taxpayer. It builds on the NAO’s 2022 report Leadership development in the civil service, which outlined the civil service’s training and development of its leaders: Leadership development in the civil service
  2. The civil service consists of around half a million civil servants, with leaders at various levels. The SCS comprises the four highest leadership levels across government, consisting of (in full-time equivalent terms at April 2023) 6,300 senior civil servants, including 45 permanent secretaries. The number of full-time equivalent senior civil servants increased by 77% between 2012 and 2023.
  3. The Government People Group runs the centre of government’s leadership capability activities.
  4. Between 2012 and 2023, the headcount of female senior civil servants increased from 37% to 49%; the headcount of those who declare themselves to be from an ethnic minority background increased from 4% to 9%; and the headcount of those who declare themselves to be disabled increased from 3% to 8%.
  5. The proportion of senior civil servants located outside London increased from 33.5% in 2012 to 36.5% in 2023.
  6. A Social Mobility Commission report in 2019 indicated that working class representation in the SCS stood at around 18%, with no improvement since 1967 (p.5).