Organizational culture and career development in the British civil service – trends, patterns, and lessons for leaders in enabling flourishing organizations – Neil Reeder

Public sector organizations have been affected in many ways by the current pandemic. Some effects are obvious, and relate to newly developed capacities such as food provision for those with vulnerabilities. By contrast, changes in mindsets among those employed by public sector organizations are less evident. Nonetheless, as the UK (hopefully) sees off the pandemic in the coming months, an ability to maintain morale and productivity among public sector staff will be vital, and that in turn is greatly dependent upon staff perceptions of career development.

In doing so, lessons can be learnt from research on organizational culture and the way it can support and hinder career development. A recent paper in the academic journal Public Money and Management (paywalled) provides insights into that question by analysing responses to the British Civil Service People Survey between 2010 and 2018. This blog sets out its broad approach, and key findings.

As shown below, 2010 was a low point for career development, but by 2018, roughly half of respondents agreed with the statement “There are opportunities for me to develop my career in [my organization])”, and a similar amount agreed that “Learning and development activities I have completed while working for [my organization] are helping me to develop my career’.  

Our analysis has examined the patterns of organizational culture that show the closest links to that improvement in career development between 2010 and 2018.

The starting point (which draws on research on organizational culture, public management, and moral ethics[1]) is to set out major aspects of organizational culture, and identify seven specific perspectives within them:

  • the degree of empowerment, which can vary from a highly centralized culture (low empowerment) to a loosely centralised one (high empowerment);
  • the focus of attention, which may be inwards (in line with William Beveridge’s saying “The besetting sin of civil servants is to mix too much with each other”), outwards towards Ministers, or outwards to citizens and respecting diversity;
  • attitudes towards different sets of priorities – individual “ego” goals (salary and promotion prospects), family-friendly work-life balance practices, peer group goals relating to the team and the organization’s overall mission;
  • attitudes to risk and change, which may be hostile, cautiously positive to change, or indeed show a radical willingness to embrace innovation.

Our next step was to calculate scores on these aspects of culture[2], as shown below, with scores potentially ranging from 0% (lowest possible) to 100% (highest possible).

All scores increased between 2018 and 2010, with the most prominent changes occurring for mission (up 13 percentage points), and empowerment (up more than 11 percentage points).

A key question is how these trends are likely to have affected career opportunities. The paper uses statistical analysis on 71 civil service organizations for 2010 to 2018, examining variations across organizations (cross-sectional analysis) and over time (time-series analysis), with both approaches giving similar results. The bar chart below shows results gained by using the former technique. It shows the extent to which 1% changes in different aspects of organizational culture in turn lead to changes in career development, and to learning and development.

Each of the various themes have differing effects on career development prospects and learning and development opportunities (results for the “Positive to change” and “Teams” themes are not given in the above chart as they were not statistically significant).  

It is probably no surprise that a culture stressing pay “adequately reflecting performance” and job being “sufficiently challenging”, as per the self/individual theme, can be positive to career development. However, an outward looking perspective, is almost as important. Furthermore, the theme most positive for career development is commitment to the mission, as shown by a proportional factor of 0.64, given that all other themes have a proportional factor below 0.4.   

Also notable is that improvements to self/family detracted from the career prospects score by a factor of 0.33, though there were signs of a positive connection to learning and development (that specific result was not, however, statistically significant from zero). In other words, a tension between work and family seemed easier for civil service culture to overcome with respect to training activities than for actual career opportunities.


In the Civil Service during the period considered (2010 to 2018), there has been a noticeable change in key features—in particular, a greater sense of mission, and decentralization of power. That represents a step towards the ethos outlined in Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”, which aspired to creating ‘lively, autonomous units, each with its own drive and sense of achievement [profiting] from the convenience, humanity and manageability of smallness’.

There are many implications of such a shift in culture for career development, especially since this vision is easier said than done. In moving towards meeting the challenges of the pandemic, morale and productivity among public sector staff will be vital, and without a culture that empowers staff, that maintains their sense of mission, and that provides an outward-looking perspective, prospects for the future of public services in the UK may be bleak.


For the full analysis see the academic paper “Organizational culture and career development in the British civil service” by Neil Reeder, Associate of RedQuadrant. The paper is available at

[1] Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework; Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions; James Wilson’s analysis of bureaucracy; New Public Management theory; ethnographic research by R.A.W Rhodes and social psychology perspectives described by Jonathan Haidt 

[2] The process here entailed (a) calculating the weighted average score for a given indicator, taking into account the proportion of overall civil service employment at each organization, (b) allocating relevant indicators from the People Survey to relevant themes of organizational culture, (c) calculating the average score among the set of indicators that represent a given theme.

“34 doughnuts”: what the world (well, Twitter), wants to tell the UK government about recovery

Responses to @JACattell tweet re: United Kingdom’s ‘renewal’

Article by RedQuadrant finance lead Joanne Peters, with assistance from Benjamin Taylor and Vinay Débrou.

On 15 April, James Cattell (a pioneer in #oneteamgov) and part of the Systems Unit in the UK Cabinet Office ( – posted this tweet:

The tweet, which was sent entirely in a personal and unofficial capacity, read:

I work in a central government team that’s helping build a strategy for the United Kingdom’s renewal after we’ve recovered from #coronavirus.
Who should we be listening to?
What questions should we be asking?
Where has this approach (not) worked well before?
Please share!
This received 1,800 retweets, 1,600 likes and over 1,500 replies.

Vinay Débrou (, a member of the PSTA’s learning community,, and the Yak Collective (, volunteered to parse the replies into excel we have been able to do some analysis of the replies. The raw scraped data from this analysis (public data scraped end April and cleaned 10 May) is available here: (

“>at this link (Excel format).

Here are some key points and thoughts from the analysis:

• The most-cited single theory, approach, or recommendation is around Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (, centred around ‘humanity’s 21st century challenge… to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet’, with a total of 34 references.

• Many of the tweets are from special interest and lobby groups promoting their causes in this context. Not all will be relevant but rather a chance to pressure where a door into Whitehall might be thought to have been opened. Does this indicate that there is not much opportunity for people to have their say and for these groups to get heard at the moment in what is a centrally led response and the focus is on crisis management?

• This along with politically motivated responses and an element of abuse limits the overall analysis.

• There are many links to research, think-pieces, agendas and blogs and it is apparent that so much thinking is already out there or being done at the moment which is relevant to the current situation which can be harnessed. This could be grouped into themes for further research. In particular, Kate Raworth features in the wordcloud with over 20 mentions and also in the analysis of most-liked tweets, suggesting that there is breadth and depth of support for Doughnut Economics as a lens or framework for renewal.

• This Wordcloud analysis of key words with over 20 mentions is useful and emphasises where the sentiment is.

JACattel tweet wordcloud

• ‘People’ has the highest number of mentions followed by ‘listen’ suggesting that there is a call to focus on developing policy and ideas with consultation and involvement of people. ‘Ask’ is also a similar trend.

• ‘Communities’, ‘economy’ and ‘government’ all present equally in the response, interesting as it indicates a balance in perspective and also ties in with the varying theme of a systemic transformation (covering environment, climate, economy, society, finance, business etc.)

• ‘Local’ also features, perhaps reflecting the recognition in local networks that have proved critical in the response so far.

• If the replies which got more than 20 likes are analysed into themes, the overwhelming area of interest and support is sustainability and wellbeing. This has 3 times as many likes compared to the second most popular, ‘listening to people’.

jacattell tweet top issues

There are some key points arising from this:
• There is a strong feeling that people from across society need to be at the heart of the next steps.
• There is broad support for a more sustainable model generally underpinned by economic reform (though the theories and approach vary).
• A focus on interdependencies and transforming the system as a whole, particularly linked back to varying approaches to ‘sustainability’.
Alongside these, ‘listen to people’ and ‘ask for help’ seem to be the key recommendations for renewal.

We will leave it to the reader to determine whether anything from this input in response to an unofficial, personal tweet. made it through to the UK Government’s plan to rebuild, published on 26 May.