Background to the report

The leadership skills of senior civil servants are key to success; they often make the difference between projects and services succeeding or failing. An effective Senior Civil Service (SCS) requires highly capable senior civil servants, together with an environment that allows them to put their skills to work.

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The Cabinet Office is the government department responsible for policy relating to the civil service. It has varying levels of control of and responsibility for activities relating to leadership capability and is directly responsible for coordinating the selection and hiring of the most senior staff (directors general and permanent secretaries).

The extent to which actions to improve leadership capability are successful depends on a range of factors over which civil service leaders have varying influence.

This report’s publication comes at a time when the civil service and its leadership are under particular scrutiny. A series of recent reviews may lead to changes in how the SCS operates, including how it approaches the capability of its leaders.

Scope of the report

Building on the National Audit Office (NAO)’s 2022 report outlining the civil service’s training and development of its leaders, this report examines the government’s overall approach to leadership capability within the SCS by:

  • examining the extent to which the Cabinet Office has adopted a whole system approach to leadership capability
  • examining whether the Cabinet Office has a clear view of what it wants to achieve in relation to leadership capability, a sound evidence base to support the design of its actions, and suitable arrangements for applying and embedding lessons
  • considering evidence on leadership capability outcomes, and outcomes from the Cabinet Office’s actions to improve leadership capability

The report does not comment on the relationship between political leaders and senior civil servants, nor does it examine actions of individual departments, professions and functions to improve leadership capability within their remits.


Government faces significant challenges on many fronts at present, and an effective cadre of civil service leaders will be an essential element in overcoming them.

Results from the Civil Service People Survey suggest that overall leadership capability has improved over the last decade, albeit from a low base. In order to build on this, the Cabinet Office needs to bring its fragmented approach into a more coherent systemic approach.

The Cabinet Office needs to be clearer on what it expects of leaders, and whether and how the activities it delivers will achieve the leadership capability it is seeking.

It needs to clearly articulate the responsibilities and accountabilities of different parts of the system, including departments, professions and functions. Doing so will enable it to test whether there are gaps or overlaps in the work being done by different parts of the system.

The Cabinet Office should set out more clearly the role it expects external recruitment to play in filling gaps, including for specific skills and to enable it to meet its diversity goals.

It should seek to understand how often external recruits leave shortly after their appointment and why they leave, so it can take appropriate action.

The Cabinet Office can build on examples of good work within individual activities, for example expanding its spread of evaluation approaches for leadership development to other activities.

If it is able to build from these a more coherent and evidence-based system it should be well placed to deliver further improvements.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (13 Mar 2024)

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