Management of senior level public servants

Public service leaders – senior level public servants who lead and improve major government functions – are at the heart of government effectiveness. They translate political direction into the policies and programmes that keep citizens healthy, safe, and economically productive. They have to make space for innovation while managing risk and being accountable for results, support fast-moving political agendas, manage and transform vast public organisations, motivate and inspire their workforces, and be trusted partners to citizens and an ever-growing list of partners and stakeholders. All of this while promoting the highest level of personal and professional ethics and integrity. These challenges are made more acute in a context of increasingly fast-paced and disruptive change, illustrated most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why OECD countries use a range of policies to ensure senior level public servants have the skills and operating environments they need to be effective in their jobs.

The OECD recently developed an analytical model that identifies two sets of policies needed to manage senior level public servants: developing leadership capabilities, and managing performance and accountability (Gerson, 2020), captured in a pilot index. Canada, Israel, Korea and the United Kingdom are the four countries that make the most use of these policies overall. For example, Korea’s competence assessment centre for senior level public servants helps to ensure that the leadership group is ready to take on complex policy challenges. Policies to develop leadership capabilities include defining leadership capabilities through competence frameworks, hiring people with these competences, and providing leaders with opportunities to learn and develop them. Canada, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are the countries making the most use of such policies. Policies to manage performance and accountability for results include the use of robust performance management systems and accountability frameworks. In this area Canada, Italy, Korea, Mexico and the United Kingdom have the highest scores (Figure 6.3).

Table 6.4 presents the specific ways in which the employment framework for senior level public servants differs from that of other public servants. The most common elements are a more centralised recruitment system and less job security (in 21 out of 34 OECD countries each, or 62%); a greater emphasis on avoiding conflicts of interest and on performance management (17 out of 34 OECD countries each, or 50%). One path to strengthening the senior level public service in many countries may be to develop a pipeline of future leaders within the public service. Investing in this area, through holistic talent management programmes that build skills among high-potential middle managers can help to ensure a ready pool of talent for these positions. However, only Canada and the United Kingdom make use of talent management to identify future senior level public servants early in their careers.

Further reading

Gerson, D. (2020), “Leadership for a high performing civil service: Towards senior civil service systems in OECD countries”, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 40, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2019), Recommendation of the Council on Public Service Leadership and Capability, OECD,

Figure notes

Data for Chile, Iceland and the Slovak Republic are not available. Data for the Slovak Republic are not available as the senior level public service is not a formalised group.

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