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Civil Service

Changing the culture of the Civil Service

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders
Head shot of Sir Jonathan Stephens
Sir Jonathan Stephens, Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office

I was reading John Pullinger's blog recently, about leadership and the Civil Service, and reflecting on how much we’ve changed in the 33 years that I’ve been a civil servant.

Working in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) then, communications between London and Belfast were by diplomatic bag or unreliable fax machines that had only recently been brought in.

While the work has always been interesting and exciting, a lot of what has made me stay for so long has been working with really great people – colleagues who are very good at their jobs, as well as being excellent company.

Flexible working

Organisational culture is quite a nebulous concept. It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes a great environment, but when it works, you really know it. Being motivated to come to work and do a good job is as much about the environment you work in and who you work with, as it is about what you do.

At the NIO, we have just gone through a significant IT change project. Previously, flexible working was limited to a few, rather clunky laptops that weren’t very portable. Now, almost every member of the department has their own laptop, enabling them to work securely wherever they like.

This change has caused us to evaluate our own culture within the department, and think about where we want to be. It enables more flexible working, both in and out of the office. But just because we have the technology to work from home, doesn’t mean we should expect our staff to be always available and on call. The work/life balance is important to maintain, and being an inclusive and open employer is one of our top priorities.

Encouraging diversity

In the NIO, and across the Civil Service, we’re striving to create a work culture that welcomes people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and recognises that diversity is something that organisations need in order to thrive.

We are committed to recruiting from all backgrounds, and to supporting flexible work patterns, which means we are able to recruit the best from the widest possible pool.  In the NIO, the flexibility made possible with our new IT has got our people talking and blogging about different patterns and ways of working. Their enthusiasm and stories are worth as much as any number of formal policies in encouraging diversity.

When I think about the changes the Civil Service has gone through over my career, I feel lucky to have worked with so many great and capable colleagues, and I look forward to welcoming new generations into what is a more inclusive culture over the next few years.

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  1. Comment by LITTLE LONDONER posted on

    Unfortunately what I notice about the civil service of 2016 is actually how LITTLE it has changed since I joined in 1984. There is still a culture of obsessive compulsive micro-management which inevitaby leads to bullying which is fiercely denied and dealt with in any way but by punishment of the perpetrator.

  2. Comment by Antoni Chmielowski HMRC posted on

    I hope the SCS will take heed of the 2015 Staff Survey Results (when published), because they don't appear to have taken any action with the crucial points raised in previous years , that are too difficult to deal with such as bullying.

    I write this more in hope than expectation.

  3. Comment by Edna posted on


    I agree with you fully. The SCS make a lot of noise about 'diversity'. What they mean is being seen to have the right number of BEME,LGBT to tick boxes. What they do not mean is 'to embrace people who think differently'. They most certainly do not mean 'to recognise that much of the way the SCS work is totalitarian and inefficient, and that we need to actually allow people to challenge us'.

  4. Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on


    I could not agree with you more. I too am the victim of an insideous bullying campaign. I did report it and it was investigated, but the investigation failed to address things properly and cited procedures had been followed. However it did not address discrepencies in witness statements and down right lies. I have no faith in the CiVil Service for reporting bullying or how a victim is treated. The outcome is that those responsible are still in post, no action have been taken and basically condoning what has taken place.

    Simply not good enough here now, in the 21st Century. And do the authors of these blog ever read and take on board what we are advising them?!!!

  5. Comment by JC posted on

    10% of responders to the 2015 Staff Survey had experienced bullying in the last 12 months. Not only is bullying morally unacceptable, but is enormously damaging to the delivery of government business. The results are a divisive and toxic culture, poor morale, lower productivity, increased stress and sick absences.

    During my 28 years in the Civil Service, bullying has caused me to transfer jobs four times. In recent months, several staff have approached me for support, having being bullied.

    All too frequently, the victims do need report bullying incidents. They believe that their complaints will be dismissed, as the perpetrator is either a line manager, a senior civil servant or part of their team's favoured 'in-group'.

    The Civil Service urgently needs a consistent, credible and independent process for handling bullying complaints. It needs to take appropriate disciplinary action against the perpetrators, regardless of their grade or seniority.

    The victims often feel marginalised and require a sympathetic support network of advisors or counsellors. Let's show some emotional intelligence and embed a 'zero-tolerance' policy for stamping out bullying.

  6. Comment by Gussie Finknottle posted on

    I think the culture in the civil service has changed over my 30 years.

    Never has it been so much them and us between the SCS and rank & file.
    Nor has morale ever been so low.

    Just look at the have your say survey.

  7. Comment by Knulp posted on

    Being told by a senior member of staff, coming to work and doing a good job and then going home is not good enough is hardly motivating.

  8. Comment by Lol posted on

    With due respect, I find it surprising that the only two changes highlighted are flexible working and diversity.

    Flexible working is something that has changED and been implemented already, it is not something that is changING a great deal. What needs changING is not the shift patterns, but the efficiency of the work. There needs to be more focus on outputs, the WHAT, rather than behaviours, the HOW. As long as no one is hurt or bullied or inefficient, people should be able to work and communicate in a variety of styles. But civil service culture defines a monolithic way people should behave, meaning that all innovation is monolithic.

    We all want diversity, but what is diversity? The Civil Service Commission has reported on the need to hire more people from the private sector, and this can be seen as another form of diversity. But we find (especially at senior level) that once the people from the private sector have been integrated into the civil service, they talk and think the same as everyone else, occasionally re-drafting a different way to deliver the same message. That is not diversity. What we need is diversity of opinion and open debate, rather than conformity.