Rupert McNeil - A career in the civil service

Image of a man smiling at the cameraRupert McNeil (1985, PPE) is currently Chair of Optimal Organisational Outcomes LLP (3XO LLP) however he was recently the UK’s Government Chief People Officer (2016 to 2022). As Government Chief People Officer, Rupert led Civil Service human resources and was responsible for delivery of the Civil Service People Strategy. He provided leadership on the full range of people issues including talent, capability, inclusion, capacity, leadership, pay, performance, employee relations, culture and behaviours.

We were lucky enough to have Rupert join us for a special in-person Alumni Career Conversation, co-hosted with St Catherine’s College this Michaelmas term. Here he explains what is so special about working in the Civil Service, as well as his key tips for entering the field.

  • The UK’s Civil Service is probably one of the most integrated public sectors in the world. It is like a rainforest – it’s hugely prolific and profuse and there is no job that isn’t being done somewhere in central government. It can still move as one organism though – and it is arguably the most sophisticated public sector in the world in the way that it has responded to endogenous matters (like Brexit), to exogenous factors (like COVID-19), and to what is increasingly a volatile environment.
  • You, the students of today, are going to be in absolutely critical governance jobs in the 2040s and 2050s and you need to get ready for future challenges. In the middle of the 21st century, humanity is going to face a convergent set of challenges (technological, demographic, social and environmental) – it will be your generation’s job to navigate humanity through those challenges. Check out Oxford alumni and benefactor James Martin’s writing on this convergence (which he calls ‘the Canyon’).
  • It’s really good to have a view now at the start of your career as to how you plan to run it – what you want your career to look like by the end of the 2060s. Think long-term. One of the great things you have about working in government is you have the opportunity to make a contribution and make an impact in the very long term. It’s a bit like being an architect or building a building – you will see the effects of your hard work.
  • The UK Civil Service’s recruitment process is very rigorous, however there are many different ways to get into government. In a recent cross-government recruitment campaign for deputy director level policy roles (which also had critical programme management aspects) over 60% of the successful candidates were external.  Also be persistent, you may be successful after several attempts. And do pay close attention to the role specification (browse roles on the Civil Service jobs website to familiarise yourself and check out the pages for the government professions and functions and the ‘standards’ they contain (check out the policy profession’s standards which are works leading)).  Ask yourself what type of operating model you want to be in, what type of organisation do you want to be in, are you interested in being in a world of security, economics, social policy and social welfare? Those are distinct types of role and organisation which will affect the way in which you shape your career.