Can the new Mentor Match scheme challenge civil service mentoring's “who you know” culture?

Written by The Mentor Match team on 17 June 2016 in Feature
Feature

Drawn up by four civil servants in their spare time, the new digital Mentor Match service has won the backing of some of Whitehall’s top figures. Here the scheme’s founders explain how they did it — and how they hope to tear down the “barriers to entry” for officials looking for new skills and challenges

The Mentor Match team: Andrew Wilkinson, Bryony Taylor, Andrew Whitten and Alys Cooke. Image: Bryony Taylor

During the last few weeks something of a mentoring revolution has been taking place across the civil service. In May, a new digital system was launched which connects civil servants looking for mentoring regardless of department, location or grade. Instead it uses information from officials’ LinkedIn profiles to suggest instantaneous matches based on skills, interests and experience.

Mentor Match’s story is an interesting one. It didn’t start life in a department or go through a long procurement and development process. It was developed by four civil servants — Alys Cooke, Bryony Taylor, Andrew Whitten and Andrew Wilkinson. All are very pro-mentoring and realised that the current system was about “who you know”, which in their words “reduced opportunities and diversity”. They wanted to improve it and set about building  Mentor Match in their spare time, coding the website, project-managing the roll-out, and designing the logo on Post-it notes at lunch.

“There’s a huge desire to develop and learn through mentoring but lots of civil servants just weren’t taking that next step because of the barriers to entry,” says Whitten. “We wanted to create something that made it easier for people to follow through on that positive impulse and get involved.”


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“Andy [Whitten] and I were discussing how important it was to have a mentor, and how neither of us had one,” adds Cooke. “We started thinking about how we would find someone if we didn’t have a network, and realised just how hard it was. We soon realised that a cross-government digital platform would make this so much easier.”

Using the networks they did have, they approached Andrew Wilkinson to help develop the website and Bryony Taylor to help deliver the communications across the civil service. All seem slightly in awe of the positive response to the system, but are excited at the opportunities it offers people.

At the time of writing over 1,300 civil servants have begun using the system, making it one of — if not the — largest mentoring database in the UK civil service.

“We’re watching people from the UK Space Agency connect with people in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to discuss people management,” explains Taylor. “How on Earth would they have met before?”

She adds: “It’s amazing that we’re helping people share their skills and develop professionally. Mentoring is so important for that.”

The system has picked up some big backers. Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and a keen advocate of mentoring, has been promoting it, as well as Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service, who stars in their opening video. Last week cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood told all civil servants on Twitter that if they had a spare ten minutes, they should spend it signing up.m

“There’s a huge desire to develop and learn through mentoring but lots of civil servants just weren’t taking that next step because of the barriers to entry" — Andrew Whitten​, co-founder, Mentor Match UK and Ofsted policy advisor

Wilkinson says that the backing of seniors has really helped and says the team’s focus is now on improving the system and making it work as seamlessly as possible.

“Mentor Match is designed to facilitate introductions,” he says. “Any civil servant from any core department or arms-length body can use the system to identify both mentors for themselves, and people they might like to mentor. They first communicate through the site. If they want to continue the mentoring relationship, the conversation then continues offline.”

The team say they used the best digital practices to build the system and have been adding and improving it in response to user feedback. 

“We had early testing sessions with a prototype, and this gradually iterated into the current form of the site,” explains Wilkinson. “For example, at first users could only authenticate themselves using their LinkedIn accounts but it soon became apparent that not everyone was using LinkedIn — this led to the decision to build in a username and password login feature too. We are continuing to iterate the site, and, thanks to great user feedback, we have a long backlog of features to prioritise and implement.”

“Each day we are approached by different departments of professions looking to work with us on rolling the system out to their staff,” says Taylor. “We’re still working on this in our spare time, so we’ve been doing our best to respond to everyone and try and help as many people as possible get involved.”

“As with any brand new online platform, we’ve had some minor glitches,” says Cooke, adding that building something that works with all the different civil service IT systems was a challenge in itself. “But people have been really understanding when things aren’t quite perfect, and supportive in helping us fix them which has been fantastic.”

The platform continues to grow apace with more departments communicating it to their staff, and the team are attending each Civil Service Live event in the spot mentor section to help promote it.

The future looks very rosy, says Whitten. “It’s been growing so much faster than expected that all our carefully laid plans for the future are feeling a bit obsolete to be honest!”

He adds: “In the very long term, we would love to see Mentor Match letting people from the private sector, from universities and professions sharing their knowledge and experience to help the civil service build the skills it needs to deliver.”

Update 22/6: The caption for the image accompanying this article has been amended to correct Bryony Taylor's name. Big apologies for the error!

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