Civil service diversity award winners of 2017 share tips on running staff networks

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 16 April 2018 in Feature
Feature

With nominations open for the Diversity and Inclusion Awards 2018, Tamsin Rutter speaks to winners from last year who helped challenge the menopause taboo, persuade 200 defence workers to identify as LGBT supporters, and ensure diverse input on counter-terrorism work

A team from the Environment Agency won the Championing Gender award in 2017. Credit: Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Awards

Britain’s top civil servants are resolute: diversity and inclusion matters. They’ve committed to making the civil service the most inclusive UK employer; they last year published a wide-ranging strategy to improve workplace culture and tackle under-representation of minority groups; and they’ve appointed an array of perm-sec level diversity champions.

But perhaps just as importantly, they’ve passed on the baton to staff. Civil service head Sir Jeremy Heywood called on every civil servant to take action on the inclusion agenda – and one of the methods he suggested was to join a staff network. This is recognition that building a diverse workforce can depend on changing the small things, which are often best noticed and improved, collectively, from the bottom up.

With the nominations now open for the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Awards 2018, CSW caught up with four winners from 2017 who were commended for building influential staff networks, to find out how and why they’ve been successful.


Share skills and collaborate

The Environment Agency’s Menopause Group won the Championing Gender award in 2017, but the team behind it only met each other for the first time at the awards ceremony. Founder Bernice Allport, having spotted a gap in the staff network landscape, put a callout on the agency’s Women’s Network intranet page and brought together a handful of dispersed, like-minded people, virtually.

“We’ve got nothing to connect us in terms of our profession or our location,” she says. This played to their advantage: Allport’s skills as a communications manager were complemented by those of staff with backgrounds in law, science and research.

"Making a difference to other people is a human need for us, it makes us happy"

“That’s been the key thing in the group – to work out who’s good at what, who wants to get involved at what level, and accept that we’ve all got day jobs to do so there are times that people dip in more than others,” she says.

The goal they set themselves was to normalise conversations about the menopause at work. “It’s the last sort of taboo, almost,” Allport explains. “Not just from a male point of view: women collude with it because you don’t want to be seen to somehow have reached an age when you’re more flakey, or less productive.”

They created an online group on Yammer, where more than 250 people, including men, from the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now support each other and share advice on dealing with symptoms. They also put together a menopause discussion pack to help women experiencing symptoms initiate potentially awkward conversations with their managers. “It’s one of those things that lots of people don’t know how to talk about,” Allport says.

The campaign is “catching fire across government, which is fantastic”, she adds. The group has been asked to speak at various civil service and external conferences, and has established a second cross-government working group, with around 30 departments represented. Among their successes, this group has persuaded Civil Service Learning to develop a module to educate staff on the menopause. Additionally, Civil Service Employee Policy is seeking to turn the Environment Agency’s menopause pack into a product for the whole workforce.

For Allport, successful networks are always a collaborative effort. She tries to create a nurturing environment for her fellow volunteers, by enabling them to grow their skills and contributing feedback to their end-of-year appraisals. There’s both a professional and a personal value for those involved. “Making a difference to other people is a human need for us, it makes us happy,” Allport says. “So I think there’s value in that.”

Make time to talk

The Department for Transport BAME network, Positive Support Group, has been going since 1996, and Kulvinder Bassi – winner of the 2017 Championing Race Equality award – has chaired it since 2005. Nearly 80% of the department’s black, Asian and minority ethnic staff are members, and it does everything from advising DfT on policies to running conferences and a mock interview support service that gives participants around a 75% chance of promotion success.

Bassi, a community rail team leader at DfT, has form for engaging a broad range of people on diversity issues. He has run events in conjunction with train operating companies showcasing work on diversity and inclusion, including a project in North Yorkshire training railway staff to be able to spot and assist people living with dementia. Another event the group ran in December attracted sponsorship from KPMG, and featured a performance from the civil service choir as well as speeches from the department’s permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly and Defra’s perm sec Clare Moriarty – formerly of DfT and a keen advocate for the agenda.

“It’s about making the time to talk and listen to people,” Bassi says, adding that he likes to create an atmosphere that will attract people that might not normally turn up to a PSG conference. “Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s amateur. Some of our conferences will be as good as any professional conference that you’ll go to.”

The network has a board level champion who has committed entire days to chair conferences in the past, and Bassi has worked to ensure that all the department’s networks have constructive relationships with HR and senior management. As far as he’s concerned, this kind of thing is key. “I guess this is where the fundamental difference between DfT and many other government departments is when it comes to staff networks – our senior leaders show their commitment very visibly,” he says.

Bassi also helped set up the cross-government BAME network, Civil Service Race Forum, which now has members from over 30 departments. By pooling resources and sending a consistent message across Whitehall, CSRF was a key player in the crusade to get the unpopular “guided distribution” element of civil service performance management axed. Evidence has shown BAME staff score lower than their peers under the system.

“People say departments don’t work well together,” Bassi says. “Well, staff networks are an example of how people do work very effectively together at departmental level.”

A network of allies

Ross Woodward, co-chair of the Ministry of Defence LGBT+ network “Sh...OUT” and winner of the Championing LGBT Equality award, believes staff networks “are an incredibly useful asset to an organisation regardless of size of sector”. His network has around 150 members across the country, some in remote areas. Groups like this can be an especially “powerful source of support” for isolated workers, he says.

They are also crucial for raising awareness. One of Woodward’s main aims on becoming network chair – a co-chair was later appointed – was to change the perception of working in defence for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“People often have misconceptions about the MoD being full of white straight alpha males,” he explains. To debunk that assumption, Woodward decided to set up another network, of straight allies – people who don’t identify as LGBT but “want to stand up and speak out for their colleagues”.

It launched in February 2017, during LGBT History Month, and was overwhelmed with interest. “The room we booked was cram-packed with people even standing at the door wanting to hear what this straight allies business was all about,” Woodward says. This initial meeting featured one employee describing what it was like to work for 10 years in the department and not feel like he could be out at work; another, a straight man, spoke of why he wanted to join, citing Martin Niemöller’s poem, First they came for....

The movement grew, and now more than 200 people – civilians and military personnel – identify as MoD straight allies. Woodward has organised two Stonewall Allies training sessions, where participants learn inclusive behaviours and how to provide visible support to their LGBT colleagues. Working groups have sprung up within the network – on producing guidance for parents of LGBT children for example, or delving into the department’s bullying and harassment scores.

Woodward attributes his success to engagement with senior staff, promoting the good work the network does, and having motivated and dedicated people on his committee. “I have so much passion for what I do,” he adds. “The satisfaction you get from seeing your work having a positive effect is priceless.”

Bring new perspectives

Most support networks are established by staff members themselves, but the winner of the 2017 Employee Network Excellence award had a different beginning. The security and defence diversity network was born of a commitment in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and involves representatives from the Home Office, Foreign Office, MoD, Cabinet Office, Department for International Development, National Crime Agency, and various UK intelligence agencies. These departments are thought to share some common challenges on diversity – people from minority backgrounds with family living abroad may assume they won’t pass security clearance processes, for example.

It was initiated by Paul Beckitt, strategy leader, with help from Corrie Kevan, deputy head of the Special Cases Unit, in the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism at the Home Office, alongside their director Richard Riley and James Withers, deputy director for the National Security Secretariat.

“It is important for us to hear a range of different views and voices. This helps avoid group-think"

“We started by making sure we understood the data,” Kevan says, adding that the national security departments “didn’t have as good a story to tell” on diversity at senior levels as some of their Whitehall counterparts. She believes that without role models, people from diverse backgrounds are less likely to consider a career in security and defence.

The network has had two main successes. The first was Mission Critical, a guide to help workplaces in national security become more inclusive. Various departments were involved in drawing it up, some of which “had done more thinking about this than others”, Kevan says. GCHQ, for example, has a long history of promoting neurodiversity, which has informed thinking in other departments.

The second success is the shadow National Security Council (Officials) board. For each of the 15 perm secs represented on the NSC(O) there’s a more junior official from the same department sitting on a shadow board. That board is predominantly female and around 50% BAME, and therefore “noticeably different” to the largely white, male NSC(O), Withers says.

The shadow board sees all the same papers as the NSC(O) for one of its meetings each month, which could be on anything from foreign policy to counter terrorism efforts. It considers issues from the perspective of the minority communities to which its members belong. They give their views to the NSC(O) before advice is put to ministers on the NSC. Withers explains the idea behind it: “It is important for us to hear a range of different views and voices. This helps avoid group-think and strengthens the advice the NSC(O) puts to ministers.”

The Security and Defence Diversity and Inclusion Network has support from the very top: from the perm secs of all involved departments and the UK’s national security adviser Mark Sedwill. But the real coup, according to Withers, is their support for staff to take action from the bottom up.

Most D&I networks across the civil service are likely made up of people from lower grades, he continues. “Making workplaces better and more diverse needs the support of seniors… but the real work goes on by people who can see that it’s making a difference.”

  • Nominations for the Diversity and Inclusion Awards 2017 are open now until 9 May. Nominate here
About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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