Civil servants championing inclusion: Simon McNorton

Written by Beckie Smith on 9 October 2018 in Interview
Interview

"When we first launched, we had no senior champions and no official support from the department... we compiled data, built an evidence base, and did everything we needed to do to prove our worth and why we were needed"

Photo: Alpha Stock Images

To mark National Inclusion Week 2018, CSW speaks to civil servants championing inclusion across departments and grades. Simon McNorton, evaluation and research adviser at DfID Kenya and DfID Somalia, shares how he got involved in building networks for Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and LGBT colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for International Development from the ground up.

How did you come to be involved in championing diversity in the civil service?

For eight years before joining the civil service I had worked for various organisations promoting inclusion and equality in the US, UK, and India. It was meant to be a career switch to a more professional research and statistics career: better pay, better terms and conditions, and better stability and opportunities for progression. I had no intention of getting involved in diversity and inclusion efforts!

When I joined DWP in 2014 I felt the dialogue on diversity and inclusion was there but there was some room for improvement. It  was clear I could contribute my analytical skills to explore how the department was performing. As someone who is deaf in both ears, gay and mixed race, diversity and inclusion is something that is at the front of my mind – it’s hard to escape. Nowadays, it gets me really excited and passionate, and although I should probably spend less time working on diversity and inclusion and focusing on my day-to-day job, it’s something that I find really rewarding.

In 2014 I worked with like-minded people in DWP’s Caxton House office to build some informal networks for BAME and LGBT colleagues, after which they were formally recognised. I left DWP in 2016 just after setting up DWPride and I know the department has made significant progress and is in a great place, which is terrific.

When I moved to DfID I made that same promise to spend less time working on diversity, but that didn’t work out either. The department launched a diversity and inclusion drive in 2017 and I was eager to get involved, having already engaged with some of the networks. Nowadays, I’m mainly helping with data analysis and the evidence base for DfID's race network, the disability empowerment network, and the LGBT+ and supporters network, as well as championing inclusion activities and seminars at the British High Commission here in Nairobi.

Tell us about the race network at DWP – what led you to set up the network, what has it meant for the people involved?

I was really proud to be a part of this – we called it the Inspire and Achieve Network. I was recruited really early by a colleague, Harsha Savani, to join a meeting with a group of five or six colleagues who were setting up a network. We were all fairly junior (EO-SEO). It was intended as a self-help network for staff from BAME backgrounds who were based at Caxton House, the DWP headquarters in London. When we first launched, we had no senior champions and no official support from the department. We started small, organising speaker sessions with influential or senior BAME figures from the department, and we built up a solid mailing list. But you could see the impact it had on the people involved – it was really empowering and we had some great allies who delivered everything competency workshops, networking events and external activities with other civil service networks. We compiled data, built an evidence base, and did everything we needed to do to prove our worth and why we were needed.

Over the same period, DWP appointed diversity champions and we were lucky enough to get Kevin Cunnington, then DG at the business transformation group and now head of the Government Digital Service. He invested time and resource in the network and lobbied at a senior level for more recognition for staff networks, and gave us the opportunity to present our evidence deck to the permanent secretary, Robert Devereux, and his leadership team. That was a really powerful opportunity for us and I like to think it helped spur some action to invest in more resources for the nascent diversity networks.

I’m still in touch with the network members. We nominated ourselves for the Race for Opportunity Awards in 2015 and we were a finalist for network of the year, and a year later we supported Kevin Cunnington as he won the champion and executive sponsor award. That was a really proud moment for us.

What particular challenges are there in terms of championing inclusion and diversity at DfID and how is the department working to overcome them?

DfID is an extremely intelligent organisation with some very qualified people working here. We have high ambitions, but we are still working towards full equality throughout our grade structure and to correct for some differences in people survey scores, particularly for BAME staff and staff with disabilities. In the last few years I’ve helped disaggregate people survey scores and looked at internal HR data to build a baseline for how we’re doing as a department.

One of the difficulties that DfID faces is that it has an incredibly diverse workforce when you consider our UK staff and our staff appointed in country (SAIC). There are very diverse cultures involved, yet they are working in a legal and social environment that is very British, and our SAIC staff have slightly different terms and conditions to UK staff.

The cultural differences have implications for gay staff, for example, who may end up working in countries where it is illegal to be gay. It also has implications for different religious groups, or for women being deployed to countries that have very conservative gender relations. And it’s not just about inclusion in the office – it extends to duty of care and things like safety and security risks for different groups of staff on foreign postings. This is a difficult challenge but one that the department is recognising and taking steps on.

Last year DfID launched a diversity and inclusion drive and set up a network of volunteers across the department – the Fab 50 (now 90 I think). The Fab 50 network has been phenomenal – so many like-minded people all giving a little bit of their time to promote inclusion across the department. It’s been led from the ground up too, so most of the Fab 50 are from junior grades, helping to invigorate various staff networks, organise events and activities, and lobby their teams and departments for changes.

One thing that’s been great are the good conversations that have been happening on our internal social media platform, Yammer, and on our department intranet, where we’ve had a series of diversity blogs that have stirred some excellent conversations.

Having supported networks in different departments, what advice do you have for maximising the impact of a diversity network?

I think there are two things to get right – firstly, you absolutely need a senior champion. I tend to be allergic to senior civil servants but I’ve found some really good allies who can really easily move things along with a quick or cutting email – SCS are very good at listening to each other. They have great networks and can get access to all sorts of speakers and opportunities. Our new LGBT champion, Becks Buckingham, is based overseas in a rather difficult environment – Juba in South Sudan – and really gets some of the difficulties that staff face when posted overseas.

I think the other key ingredient is solid evidence and data backing up a good business case for inclusion. I’m probably biased as a researcher and statistician, but evidence is key. If you can articulate the problem well with figures and narrate the implications for a team or department, and explain what inclusion can achieve in terms of improving those figures, and therefore business outcomes, then it’s really difficult for people to ignore you. A good business case for equality can paint a very convincing argument to improve a department. I’m lucky that as a statistician I can access things like the people survey and other HR data and build an evidence base – but every good network should make sure it has an evidence lead who is documenting where it is, where it's heading, and the progress it's making.

What’s the most exciting initiative you’ve come across in the civil service, aside from the projects you’re involved in?

I met recently with Rob Neil, who is heading up Project Race at the Ministry of Justice and was formerly chair of the Civil Service Race Forum. Meeting with him and getting behind the scenes on some of the debate and dialogue at senior levels in the MoJ and across the civil service was pretty stimulating. Being around people who share some of the grievances around exclusion that you face is powerful – but being around people like Rob who really challenge the civil service in a positive way, drawing attention to where things are going wrong and running all sorts of initiatives to make things better, is great. It’s really useful to see how people channel frustrations into positive outcomes.

Rob also invited me to a cross-civil service WhatsApp group of like-minded people – it’s a really cool way for us to share articles, information, activities, and work together to make the civil service a more inclusive place.

What one thing could our readers do to support inclusion in their own teams this week?

Give up some time or help others to give up some time to support a staff network or local people group – particularly if you have useful skills. Staff networks and people groups are nearly always run and staffed in the personal time of staff that are involved. Often, staff don’t have their network role built into their objectives and managers obviously have core business functions to prioritise. I think that while the civil service is keen on making staff networks successful, it hasn’t necessarily mastered the difficult balancing act of freeing up staff time or supporting staff who commit so much to making them a success. I’ve seen some people work all out – evenings and weekends – to make sure network activities run smoothly while also balancing their day-to-day roles.

If you can’t help out directly, learn about various staff networks in your department and make sure you’re clued up in case you or a colleague need somewhere to go for support.

Failing all that, make some cake. Staff networks always appreciate good cake for their labours.

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