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.