Public service leaders are at the heart of government effectiveness. These leaders who occupy senior positions in public administration’ lead and transform major government functions. They have to make space for innovation while managing risk and being accountable for results. They must support fast-moving political agendas, motivate and inspire their workforces and be trusted partners to citizens and stakeholders. All of this while promoting the highest level of personal and professional ethics and integrity. This is why almost 90% of OECD countries designate these senior officials as a special group within their public service, and use specific management tools to develop their capabilities.


Read more below for information on how the OECD and its Members are working to support leaders in the public service.

Key Issues

The OECD supports governments in addressing public service leadership in the following ways:

  • Identifying and improving Leadership Competencies: leading public service organisations is a complex job, requiring significant leadership skills. They need people management skills, to develop, motivate and inspire large and diverse workforces. They need analysis skills, to be trusted evidence-based advisors to Ministers and elected officials. And they need system thinking skills to collaborate with a broad range of organisations to achieve common objectives. The OECD has developed a public service leadership skills model outlined in the frameworks section of this webpage.
  • Assessing and developing Senior Civil Service Systems: Governments need policies processes and tools to equip senior civil servants with the right skills. They also need to ensure an operating environments that provides public service leaders with the right incentives and tools to achieve government objectives. The OECD model outlined in the frameworks section of this webpage takes both of these factors into account. The model can help governments to assess the strengths and gaps of their Senior Civil Service Systems.

Principle 2 of the Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability calls on governments to build leadership capability in the public service, in particular through: 

  • Clarifying the expectations incumbent upon senior-level public servants to be politically impartial leaders of public organisations, trusted to deliver on the priorities of the government, and uphold and embody the highest standards of integrity without fear of politically-motivated retribution;
  • Considering merit-based criteria and transparent procedures in the appointment of senior-level public servants, and holding them accountable for performance;
  • Ensuring senior-level public servants have the mandate, competencies, and conditions necessary to provide impartial evidence-informed advice and speak truth to power; and
  • Developing the leadership capabilities of current and potential senior-level public servants.


The following principles of the Recommendation are also particularly relevant and may be used as a guide by those wishing to develop leadership capability in the public service:

Principle 1. Define the values of the public service and promote values-based decision-making.
Principle 3. Ensure an inclusive and safe public service that reflects the diversity of the society it represents.
Principle 4. Build a proactive and innovative public service that takes a long-term perspective in the design and implementation of policy and services.



Click to see the report "Leadership for a High-performing Civil Service"

The Civil Service depends to a great degree on empowered leaders working in supportive operating environments. This chart can help members reflect on their current state and serve as a basis to inform internal reform projects. The ideal quadrant is the top right, where senior civil servants are well equipped with capabilities and operating environments that allow them to put those capabilities to best use. Each of the other three quadrants of this matrix suggests different weaknesses of the system and areas where further investment could be directed to develop an effective senior civil service.

                                                                    Leadership capabilities

Based on nine case studies, the OECD mapped the core leadership capabilities required of senior civil servants working on complex public sector challenges expected to become more relevant in the future of public work. The identified capabilities are organised in four groups: Values-based leadership, open inclusion, organisational stewardship and network collaboration. 


This composite indicator measure the robustness of the policies and practices used to develop leadership competencies of senior level public servants (SLPS), and manage their performance. This indicator is partly based on the Senior Civil Service systems framework developed in the recent working paper. The new indicator is divided in two sub-indicators, each weighting 1/2 of the final indicator, as represented in the figure below. These sub-indicators measure:


  • a. The use of tools to develop leadership capabilities within the senior civil service
  • b. The use of tools to promote accountability for performance and results


Good practices

Australia: The employee census indicated that when asked whether employees thought senior leaders in their organisation were sufficiently visible, those who strongly agreed showed substantially higher scores (double in some cases) on all components of employee engagement.

Brazil: The Sigepe Talent Bank is a platform serving as a skills database for public servants who would like to access leadership positions.

Chile: The Chilean government created the Sistema de Alta Dirección Pública, a central senior civil service system to establish a professional senior management cadre. 

Estonia: Estonia has invested in employer branding to promote careers as a senior public servant. Previous advertising campaigns have emphasised the mission-oriented nature of public service and appealed to candidates’ motivation to have impact and serve the public good. 
Netherlands: The Dutch vision of public sector leadership recognises that there is not one single ideal type of leader; rather there are qualities every public leader should show. 

Case studies

Finland: Leadership for Systems Change - Building leadership capabilities for implementing horizontal priorities in Finland

The Finnish case study looks at how Directors General work collaboratively across sectors to achieve common goals for society. The case study explores two sets of issues which challenge the implementation of horizontal working methods through vertical ministries: first, leaders’ capabilities to balance horizontal and vertical priorities, and to adapt to new ways of working; second, a range of institutional factors outside the leadership capability realm such as resources allocations for horizontal projects, structural arrangements, and accountability mechanisms.

IrelandBuilding Leadership Capabilities for Innovation in a Digital Government - The case of senior leadership in the Irish Public Service

Ireland intends to boost the innovation culture in its public service organisations and strengthen leadership for empowering innovation. To this end, the Irish Government piloted a learning-oriented workshop developed by the OECD among a group of its senior public service leaders in order to better understand and develop sustainable innovative organisations. This case study is the output of this workshop which brings together existing OECD work on digital transformation, senior public leadership, and core skills for public sector innovation to explore how Ireland’s senior leaders support innovation within their organisations and what interventions could build their capabilities – and the capabilities of their workforce – to drive more innovation.

France: Building Capacity to Lead the Digital Transformation: a new mind-set in the French civil service

This case study discusses how France is preparing its senior civil servants to support and steer digital technologies to create public value, namely in the context of France’s strategy for the future of public service, Administration Publique 2022. As the fast pace of digital transformation is placing new expectations on SCS, various French public organisations are piloting initiatives to strengthen SCS capacity to lead the digital transformation. This case study presents some of these initiatives.

Australia: Inclusive Leadership in the Public Service of New South Wales, Australia

This case study looks at the leadership challenges of designing and implementing ‘next generation’ diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies in the state of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Specifically, it looks at how inclusive leaders in the NSW public sector workforce are building evidence-based approaches to achieving D&I targets, are embedding D&I throughout the employee lifecycle to ensure coherence and broaden the reach of policies, are tackling implementation gaps by “nudging” towards change, and are building sound governance structures that promote accountability for results.

Canada: Building Leadership Competencies on Diversity and Inclusion

The Canadian case study looks at how senior civil servants develop an inclusive culture to achieve better organisational performance and health. These “inclusive leaders” need to have a strong grasp of the changing notions of diversity, the past barriers to implementation, and the skills necessary to translate diversity and inclusion into beneficial outcomes. The case study suggests a range of areas that Canada can explore to build on their strong commitment to D&I agenda, including ways of expanding the diversity of perspective and experience in the public service.

Israel: Working with stakeholders to build a talented workforce, the role of the Senior Civil Servants

As some organisations in the public sector struggle to attract talented civil servants, an emerging practice is the active involvement of senior civil servants (SCS) in key aspects of recruitment such as candidate outreach, job profiling, and interviewing/assessment. This case study focusses on four examples from the Israeli Civil Service where SCS have played an active role in bringing in needed skills to their organisation. They primarily achieved this through either encouraging candidates with sought-after skills to apply to work in government and/or through taking a greater personal role in the process of job profiling, testing and hiring the candidates.

Netherlands: Senior Civil Servants as Societal Partners

More and more, Dutch senior civil servants are finding that they need to work with external stakeholders (other levels of government, private sector agents, civil society organisations and even individual citizens) in order to address a wide range of public policy challenges. This case study explores the changing context/landscape in which Dutch senior civil servants currently work, and discusses how they could improve their roles as societal partners to provide public value through greater engagement and co-operation with stakeholders.

Estonia: Leadership prepared for the challenges of today and the future

This case study uses the experience of Estonia and the Top Civil Service Excellence Centre to explore questions about the future of leadership development in a public sector system. What is the role of continuous development? Who is responsible? How do we measure the results and make it sustainable? How does this link to the overall leadership system and lifecycle (recruitment, development, retention)?

Korea’s Competency Assessment Test for Senior Civil Service

This case study looks at how Korea has implemented a competency model and assessment process. The case study shows how Korea has used its competency assessment system not only to improve the leadership competencies of its senior civil servants, but as a tool to transform the culture of the civil service. The case study introduces Korea’s civil service, describes the model and the assessment process, and concludes with reflections on opportunities for further development.




Senior Civil Service System self-assessment tool

The OECD has developed a self-assessment tool (a ‘checklist’) to provoke reflection and generate discussion. It translates the key components of a senior civil service system into specific statements that should be true for countries to be placed in the effective senior civil service category. 

Click here to access the tool. 

Further reading

A selection of recent reports is available through the OECD iLibrary, many of which provide more context and detail on Leadership in the public sector:



OECD (forthcoming), The Future of Work in the Public Service

OECD (2017), Skills for a High-Performing Civil Service, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2016), Engaging Public Employees for a High-Performing Civil Service, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2019), Government at a Glance 2019, OECD Publishing, Paris.


Working papers

Working Paper: Leadership for a high performing civil service: Towards a senior civil service system in OECD countries (2020) 

Nolan-Flecha, N. (2019), "Next generation diversity and inclusion policies in the public service: Ensuring public services reflect the societies they serve", OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 34, OECD Publishing, Paris.


Public Governance Reviews

OECD (2018), OECD Public Governance Reviews: Paraguay: Pursuing National Development through Integrated Public Governance, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris.