Flying the flag: How recruiting in mother and baby playgroups and boosting staff networks is creating a more inclusive Scottish Government

Written by Richard Johnstone on 8 March 2019 in Feature

Three top civil servants tell Richard Johnstone what the Scottish Government is doing to boost diversity and how it is making a difference to policymaking

Sarah Davidson, Catriona Macaulay and Lorna Gibbs. Photos: Matt Beech

In 2016, the Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon set a target for the Scottish Government “to make real and lasting progress towards true equality of opportunity for all” within five years. Three years on, CSW checks in with three senior Scottish Government officials – director general for organisational development and operations Sarah Davidson, chief executive of the criminal records service Disclosure Scotland Lorna Gibbs, and chief design officer of the digital directorate Catriona Macaulay – to assess the current state of diversity and inclusion north of the border.

What are the Scottish Government’s aims around diversity and inclusion?

Sarah Davidson (director general, organisational development and operations): “We have an ambition to be a world-leading employer when it comes to diversity, where people can be themselves at work. We want a workforce that has a wide range of experiences and skills, and that reflects the population we serve. We want to be open, capable and responsive, and the best example of that is our diversity and inclusion aims.”


Lorna Gibbs (chief executive, Disclosure Scotland): “As an agency of the Scottish Government we follow the same policy, but we have also done quite a lot of work ourselves on a set of values for our organisation. The values that we came up with, after involving all staff, were around being an inclusive organisation, enriched by diversity, where individual needs are supported and people are treated with respect.

“That’s something that I’ve been prioritising since I came into post two and a half years ago – making sure we’re designing services for people’s lived experience.”

Catriona Macaulay (chief design officer, digital directorate): “The digital directorate works across government, and digital [as a sector] is an area that does have endemic and structural problems with diversity, so having the organisational diversity drive has been really important in making sure we keep attracting the kind of people we need. We hope to represent a model for Scotland in terms of diversity and inclusion.”

The Scottish Government has a role both as a policymaker and an employer to promote diversity. How important is it that the government sets a good example?

SD: “I think it is critically important. The Scottish Government has a set of equality outcomes that it works towards [see box overleaf], and within those are two outcomes which are for the government, as opposed to things where we want to try and influence the external world through policy.

“The government as an employer has a real responsibility to be a role model and I don’t think we could reasonably expect colleagues in the government to be fully taking account of equality interests in their policy work if they have no understanding themselves of the different perspectives of citizens living in Scotland.”

LG: “I think it’s part of the responsibility of a chief executive to be leading from the top and making sure the organisation reflects the Scottish Government’s and the civil service’s values, but that is specific to the areas that we’re working in. Those can be quite different – our organisation is based in Glasgow, there are others based in smaller areas: in Kilwinning, in Galashiels, or across Scotland. For example, we have a range of networks for minority groups – I’m quite involved with the LGBTI network – and we’ve done a lot to make sure that people can join in through video conferencing, for example, so that people in offices in Stornoway have the same opportunities to have their voices heard.”

CM: “Very similarly for us, a really important point is that diversity and accessibility [policies] don’t create a more inclusive experience for people in and of themselves – we need to drill down into the very concept of inclusion. For a lot of folks, the traditional concept of inclusion – that you have an equal opportunity to be promoted, for example – is not necessarily what is important to people about an inclusive workplace.

“At a day-to-day level there’s been a huge emphasis over the last couple of years on helping people to engage with diversity. That includes inviting people with various protected characteristics to speak to large groups of staff at special events around understanding diversity and inclusion – I get invited to those constantly, I’m sure Lorna does as well.”

“The world we’re in now feels so different. We’ve now got several members of the SCS who are out. I’m probably still the most mouthy lesbian at that level, but there is definitely competition” Lorna Gibbs

How has the Scottish Government’s approach to diversity changed in your time working here?

LG: “I joined the Scottish Government in 2001, although I’ve been a civil servant for most of my working life. There wasn’t anybody in the senior civil service that was representing, or certainly publicly out and willing to speak about LGBTI issues then, which is my particular area. Every time there was an article on Saltire [the Scottish Government intranet], we gritted our teeth and waited for the unpleasant comments about special treatment. The world we’re in now feels so different. We’ve now got several members of the SCS who are out. I’m probably still the most mouthy lesbian at that level, but there is definitely competition.

“It feels like there’s been a complete sea change. I know from speaking to colleagues that there are pockets of the organisation that maybe aren’t felt to be as supportive. So there is still work to be done, but I can do my weekly blog and talk about my partner in the same way as people have talked about their husbands and wives and nobody’s interested – I think it is just an indication of where we’ve got to. My constant mantra is that I want to work in an organisation where my sexuality is the least important thing about me. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we are so much further than we were.”

CM: “I am a lesbian and I remember about 20 years ago somebody tried to lure me into applying for a job in the civil service in Scotland, and I turned it down because I knew so many gay and lesbian folks who worked in the Scotland Office at the time who were completely closeted and very unhappy, so I thought I’m not going to go work there. But I joined four years ago and around LGBTI it’s now a really comfortable organisation.

“At that point, particularly around disability which is my other identity tag, the organisation was still pretty naive. That has changed, and I think we’re on a very similar journey to the one the organisation has been on with LGBTI issues. So I feel really encouraged and excited. For me, what’s important is not that the organisation’s great at all these things but that it is increasingly open and honest about where it is failing. That’s more important than anything else as far as I’m concerned.”

SD: Yes, I think that over the last, relatively small number of years, this has just become part of the organisational conversation, and an important part is recognising we’ve got further to go. There is a much greater willingness on the part of people to recognise they’ve got a lot to learn, but an openness to learning, and I think that has created a context where other colleagues want to help people to understand.”

How has an increased awareness of equality improved policymaking?

SD: “It’s critically important. The ability to have your eyes open and to engage with people really matters, to have that sense of building empathy and stepping into other people’s shoes.

“Take the work we’re doing to establish the new social security agency in Scotland. Very significant new powers have been devolved to Scotland on social security and there was a very clear political decision that the principle to underpin the delivery of those new powers would be dignity and respect. So there’s a huge amount of work being done to engage with the lived experience of people who are currently benefit recipients within the existing DWP structures, and to apply it to every single step of the operational delivery of social security.

“An example is our understanding of the visceral reaction that many people have to receiving a brown envelope, and what that means for them. As a result, we are communicating with all of our client group in white envelopes. It is amazing how quickly the feedback was that it made a palpable difference to how it felt for them to engage with the agency.

“Also we have sought to employ people in the social security agency from a much more diverse background than we have in the past. That has involved us doing things in recruitment that we’ve never done before: we’ve been going into mother and baby playgroups in disadvantaged parts of Dundee, which is where the social security headquarters are, or sitting in job centres or cafes near them talking to people about whether they’ve ever thought of working for the public sector. We now have people working in the social security agency who themselves have grown up in families, or are now living in families, who are benefit recipients. And it’s really interesting, talking to them and their managers,  hearing how that shapes how they want to work in the agency.”

CM: “I think that’s such an important example and I think it’s also a reminder of why it’s important that we have a diverse workforce, because the social security agency in Scotland will be delivering benefits to a huge percentage of the population, particularly disability benefits, and many of the people involved in designing those benefits, including myself, are direct or indirect customers. I get disability benefit myself and having people engaged in that work who have our own lived experience reinforces the lessons about what it feels like to get that brown envelope with the threatening letter.

“Also, I live in Dundee and I’ve seen the impact that employment strategy has had on the city. It has created a very different sense among communities who would otherwise never have considered a career in the public sector. People are actively talking about it now in a way I’ve never heard before, so it’s a real example of how different measures are starting to come together and hit the kind of critical mass of change."

How can leaders keep the focus on equality?

SD: “The big focus over the coming year is to deliver on our commitments to inclusion. Among everything else – and you don’t need me to tell you how much is going on at the moment in the political and the policy delivery world – we need to continue to drive the message that this will make us a more productive, more creative, and more innovative organisation. And whatever the future, whatever happens with Brexit or anything else, that’s the kind of organisation you need to be.”

CM (left): “That is so important particularly from the point of view of disability, which is often one of those areas it is difficult to do anything about – to improve the experience of disabled people in the country is difficult and costly, and feels like one of those things that is very easy to cut in the face of other pressures. It’s been really encouraging to me that I’ve not felt that slowdown in the last few months in particular, and feel relatively confident that will continue in the coming – and obviously very challenging – times ahead.”

LG: “We’ve just done a review of our culture and leadership in our organisation, to get under the skin in a little bit more detail. So we’ve brought in people who spent some time in the organisation to do a questionnaire, and we’ve also had lots of good in-depth conversations with people about how they feel about the organisation, where they think our culture is compared to where it was a couple of years ago, and what kind of culture they want it to be. That, alongside the Civil Service People Survey, gives us good evidence of where we’re not doing as well as I would like. In those areas we now know exactly what our staff are thinking and that makes it easier to start addressing what the issues might be.”

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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