The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.


Leadership and management are inseparable – the two sides of the same coin – and yet quite different. Leadership is about who you are. Management is about what you do. Management is the process of achieving your aims by getting the most of out the resources at your disposal, and in particular getting the most out of your team.

Most processes involve the following:

Let's look at Strategy, Aims and Objectives in more detail.


Vague aims, vision statements and the rest seldom assist either managers or those they manage. "We are going to be the best in the world at what we do" is not a strategy. It is a vague ambition. And words like synergy and customer-centric add nothing to the sum of human knowledge.

Your organisation may have its own strategy or vision. Your job is to translate it into something that makes sense, and that inspires you and the people working with you. Do not hesitate to re-frame a vague corporate strategy to make it more relevant to what you do.

Strategy requires making choices. Once you think you have written it down, identify what it means you will not do. If you can't do this then you have a pretty meaningless jumble of words.

A good strategy will generally include:

  1. A diagnosis that defines the challenge that you face.
  2. A guiding approach or route map which will help you deal with the challenge.
  3. A set of coherent actions and objectives consistent with '1' and '2'.

Aims and Objectives

Aims and objectives should if possible be ‘SMART’, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-dependent. And they should be kept simple and relevant to the person who owns them. For instance, few of us can cope with more than three tiers of Aims, Objectives and Targets. And whilst an objective of the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office might be to cut crime, or keep it to a certain figure, this would become part of the aim of more junior officials who might be responsible for the Police Pension Scheme. The important thing is that those in charge of the pension scheme should know that it needs to be so designed that it will attract and retain high calibre police officers (and that is their objective) in order that those officers might in turn cut crime.

If anyone has difficulty in accepting worthwhile objectives, as distinct from day to day targets and activities, it is helpful to ask them what would change, or how they and their team would be missed, if they did not exist. Alternatively, the line manager should complete the sentence beginning “You will be a success if you …”. I have yet to meet anyone who has, when challenged in this way, failed to justify their employment in terms of meaningful objectives. 

Civil servants have traditionally drafted their own objectives or job plan. This approach was unfortunately enshrined in official guidance when objectives-setting was first introduced in 1986. Why ‘unfortunately’? It is surely axiomatic that managers should take responsibility for defining what jobs they want done, what sort of person they want to do them and what standard of performance is expected. This should be clearly set out in a document which draws as necessary on the department’s and directorate's written objectives, and should in the first instance be drafted by the manager, not the managed. After all, who else but the manager can in the first instance say why a particular individual is employed within their team?

And too many civil servants default to job descriptions that are all about what people do (‘I give policy advice . . .’, ‘I manage . . .’) rather than what they are trying to achieve. The usual response, of course, is that things like the health of an industry, or of the population, are dependent upon so many variables that it is positively unfair to credit any one civil servant with their improvement. There is of course some truth in this but it is also true that a great deal of effort will be wasted unless it is directed towards an identifiable (even if distant) objective. Also, the adoption of challenging and worthwhile objectives leads quickly to innovation, team working and other good practices.

But note that it is genuinely difficult for some senior officials to be explicit about their and hence their Ministers’ objectives, for Ministers will often either refuse to be specific (for fear of being seen to fail) or announce some dramatic objective which, within days, appears imprecise or unattainable.

And take care!  Objectives are powerful things, especially when linked (as they should be) to appraisal. Get them wrong and your whole organisation will go off in the wrong direction. Take particular care if you are tempted to define your objectives in monetary terms. This approach can sometimes be very effective. Equally, it can turn you all into novice accountants, quite oblivious to your wider or longer-term responsibilities. See also the advice on measurement in the section on planning, below.

Although the job plan should emphasise the importance of achieving worthwhile objectives, rather than the ability to demonstrate a range of grade-related skills or behaviour, it should also make it clear what levels of skill, effort and achievement represent satisfactory performance. This will help those who wish to show that their performance has been much better than satisfactory. It can also be useful to deploy the concept of ‘breakthrough performance’ when trying to explain the difference between what is in the civil service generally known as ‘Box 2’ rather than ‘Box 3’ (i.e. satisfactory) performance.

Although I always write the first draft of the person’s objectives, the document obviously has to be shown in draft to the person being managed. In particular, I have often found it helpful to ask colleagues to say, in effect, what they offer to do by way of satisfactory performance. This can help dispel unreal expectations that satisfactory performance somehow deserves of an exceptional report. Indeed, I take the firm view that Box 2 breakthrough performance cannot be recognised in the absence of a clear agreement between manager and managed which specifies the level of performance that has been exceeded.

Planning and Measurement

Having set your objectives, you must now plan how you will get there.

Planning is of course an unnatural process. It is, after all, much more fun to do something. And the other nice thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. But experienced managers know that planning is (a) relatively simple (which is perhaps another reason why it does not appeal to many civil servants) and (b) an indispensable precursor to success. The main thing, therefore, is to do it! But when you do it, these are the key points that need to be borne in mind.

Much of the above implies measurement. This lies at the heart of effective management, whether of the policy process or of anything else. We all know – though we often forget – that ‘you cannot manage what you do not measure’. Another version of this saying is that ‘If you measure it, you change it’ - which leads to the conclusion that you should ‘Make the important measurable, not the measurable important.’ This really is the key to success in all your endeavours, and time spent on unmeasured activity is the most likely time that is being wasted.

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Martin Stanley