Civil servants championing inclusion: Marsha Osivwemu

Written by Beckie Smith on 27 September 2018 in Interview
Interview

"When I was at college, I never knew the civil service was for everyone to join, it thought it was a unique ‘club’. We need to make sure all new talent realises it is a career option for anyone."

To mark National Inclusion Week 2018, CSW speaks to civil servants championing inclusion across departments and grades. Marsha Osivwemu, head of the Natural Environment Portfolio Office and 25 year environment plan implementation at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, shares how she went from seeing the civil service as an exclusive club to supporting others from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds to forge civil service careers.

How did you come to be involved in championing diversity in the civil service?
It took a number of years before I decided to get more involved in equality, diversity and inclusion within the civil service. To be honest, it was only when I personally felt the possible impact that I decided to get more involved.

Following my appointment to the management team for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government's black and minority ethnic (BAME) network, I became more aware of the BAME issues, in particular on progression and performance markings. I wanted to share my experience and encourage and support other BAME staff to progress and achieve their career potential through schemes such as reverse mentoring and action learning sets. I also worked with human resources to try and improve their data, activities, events and actions to take forward in order to improve inclusion and inspire ethnic minorities within the workplace.

Moving over into Defra, I’m still continuing this work, but I'm slightly less involved than before due to the demands of my job. I’m now more involved in the department's Inclusion and Diversity Group for two directorates. I'm also part of the working group for Defra's Project Race Scheme.

Tell us more about the Project Race scheme.
Project Race is an initiative bought in by Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty to address the issues on BAME representation in Defra,  particularly in senior grades. The aim is to develop a programme and strategy to improve ethnic minority diversity and inclusion. When I first started at Defra, I was inspired to hear her talk about bringing your full self to work and her views on improving the diversity of the Defra workforce.

What are some of the barriers to inclusion in the civil service for people from ethnic minorities? What’s needed to reduce those barriers?
The main barrier is understanding difference; we all bring something to the workplace from many different backgrounds and life experiences. The civil service needs to reflect the demographics of the UK to enable effective policy and decision making to be representative. The barriers are mainly around getting the right people from all backgrounds through the door and supporting existing staff to be the best they can be. People want to get into the civil service. We’re recruiting a lot of executive officers into our directorates at the moment and we had 361 applicants for the eight roles advertised (three of which were apprenticeships). There seems to be a drop-off rate when it comes to ethnic minorities and I’m not sure why.

Social mobility seems to be another thing that comes up. I myself feel disadvantaged in more than one way because I’m female, ethnic minority and I didn’t come from a privileged background. I grew up in a council estate, went to a comprehensive school and didn’t go to university. We are working to engage more with colleges and universities in disadvantaged areas to encourage students to join the civil service, and to promote and support new talent  into government roles. When I was at college, I never knew the civil service was for everyone to join, it thought it was a unique ‘club’. We need to make sure all new talent realises it is a career option for anyone.

How does the inclusion and diversity group you’re involved in support people from diverse backgrounds?
The D&I group is in its infancy and we are currently engaging with staff to understand the issues that affect them. We're gathering information on what initiatives should be considered to improve diversity and inclusion, with the aim of developing an action plan.

D&I needs to be tackled by everyone at Defra, with buy-in from the top of the office as well as individual staff. We are lucky to have the board's full support to improve D&I in the department. It will not be a easy journey nor will it happen overnight, it will take continued effort for a number of years to make an impact.

What’s the most exciting initiative you’ve come across in the civil service, aside from the projects you’re involved in?
Working in Defra, you begin to realise how important the department really is. I never thought Defra would be the department I had most interest in working. But since being here, it has been one of best civil service jobs I have experienced, not only for the policy area but also the people.

The 25 year environment plan has really brought this to the forefront for me. What I like about the plan is the how exactly we can engage with the environment and see tht work gathering momentum . It's about how we leave the environment in a better place for the next generation.

One of my favourite commitments is connecting people and engaging with schools, predominantly disadvantaged children. We want to encourage them to get involved with nature. My own children go to a forest school and really enjoy it. They laugh when I tell them about the times I’ve cried because of bugs and insects. Next year, 2019, is the year of the green action, for businesses and communities to promote the activities they’re doing in order to improve the environment.

The other initiatives are the Future Leaders Scheme and Minority Ethnic Talent Association (META) programme to develop future leaders for the senior civil service. I am proud to be on both schemes. They provide the opportunity to develop my leadership skills further and, more importantly, the ability to network with a wide range of fellow civil servants from a range of backgrounds and cultures.

What one thing could our readers do to support inclusion in their own teams this week?
Open their eyes, look around and embrace difference. Share your own cultures and background.

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