'There's been a lot of listening': Jonathan Slater on becoming civil service LGBTI champion

Written by Beckie Smith on 4 July 2019 in Interview
Interview

As Pride season gets underway, the DfE perm sec talks diversity, data and learning from his daughter

Photo: Cabinet Office

Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater took up the mantle of civil service LGBTI champion in April. He tells CSW what he’s been doing so far, his plans for the coming months and why equality matters to him.

What have you been doing so far as LGBTI – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex – champion?

I’ve worked hard as the champion in the Department for Education over the last two or three years but I’m new in this role – so unsurprisingly there’s been a lot of listening so far to understand the issues across the civil service. I’ve been holding meetings with different groups, including the department network chairs, department champions and others to get people’s views.

What kind of issues have you been looking at?

There are common themes – but my job is to going to be to make sure that we can achieve more collectively than individual departments can do themselves. To take one example, each government department works on its own submission to the Stonewall Index. We were pleased at the DfE to have moved up the index this year and other departments have done similarly, but this is one area where we can achieve more by working collectively.


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How so?

We’ll be looking to demonstrate to Stonewall that our HR-wide policies help to foster diversity and inclusion – rather than it being a competition between departments to see who’s better than who, let’s work together. I’ve also been talking to Stonewall about how we could work with them to increase the extent of training and development – through things like allies programmes and line management programmes. And Stonewall isn’t the only organisation working in this area, so I’ll be looking at what other training opportunities we could develop too.

What have you learned so far about the issues affecting LGBTI people across the civil service?

It’s early days, but clearly issues of equality and diversity vary depending on, for example, the geography of the place in which you’re working. Some Foreign Office staff, for example, are based in countries with very different policies and laws. How you handle that is a particular set of issues which are of interest to the international departments – so we have agreed there is sharing of learning and expertise that can be done by the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and other departments working abroad.

Another would be that civil servants do all sorts of different fantastic things and encounter different issues in that work. The Ministry of Justice departmental champion was talking about issues the prison service is dealing with. So all sorts of issues arise, depending on whether you’re in operational work, policy work, which country you’re doing the work in and so on.

Why did you want to take on the cross-government role?

I’ve very much enjoyed being LGBT champion for the Department for Education and diversity and inclusion is one of the most important things that I do as a leader of a department. And I’m really interested in the question of what the civil service can do collectively and how it can be more than the sum of its parts.

Then this year I was chosen to receive Stonewall’s Senior Champion of the Year award. So I thought, okay, if Stonewall think that I can do the job well in the Department for Education then maybe there was more I could offer for the wider civil service. When [former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport perm sec] Sue Owen, who was LGBT champion, retired, I thought, let’s go for it.

Have there been particular events or people that have ‘opened your eyes’ to some of the challenges LGBTI people face?

I have always been interested in equality; that’s what my parents taught when I me. I remember them telling me about going to New York on holiday in 1969, and seeing the marches that happened around the Stonewall riots. And I remember getting a school prize for an essay about racism in what was then Rhodesia – that shows how old I am! When I went to university, that was the first time I engaged actively with issues like whether people felt it was safe to come out, and the first time I made gay friends. I remember thinking how incredibly unfair it was that it could be so difficult for people to be themselves openly.

Now I have a trans daughter and obviously, I’ve learned an enormous amount from her about what it’s like to be trans and what it feels like to go through that journey. I’ve been struck that although trans rights is a newer issue than lesbian and gay liberation, young people take it in their stride that that is some people’s experience and that’s really encouraging. Equally, there are often newspaper reports of discrimination and people being abused for being trans, including at work, and having someone in your own family who’s trans really brings that home to you.

Where has the civil service made progress on building a more inclusive atmosphere for LGBTI people?

One area is transparency. There’s lots of data I can look at – the results of our People Survey are broken down by ethnicity, gender, sexuality and so on, so we can look at that and make sure that we take whatever action needs to be taken.

And certainly in my department – I am still in the early days of learning about the civil service as a whole – I would say there is a lot more openness about people feeling able to express themselves fully in the workplace. Nobody should feel that they have to talk about their personal life at work, but equally nobody should feel they have to censor themselves. And people shouldn’t make assumptions about other people.

Where does the civil service still need to make progress?

The People Survey shows that you’re more likely to say you’ve been bullied or discriminated against if you’re LGBT than if you’re not [in the 2018 poll, 19% of LGBT respondents said they had experienced discrimination and 17% said they had been bullied or harassed – compared with 12% and 11% of heterosexual people respectively]. The Cabinet Office is doing a piece of work to understand that data better, and to look at what we need to do next.

The good news is that people are being more open – more people say they are reporting incidents of bullying and harassment [42% of LGBT people who said they had been bullied or harassed said they had reported it – up from 39% two years earlier].

What else will you be looking at as champion in the coming months?

An area I wanted to mention was intersectionality – what happens when different identities intersect, such as somebody’s sexuality and their race, or their race or gender, and so I was really pleased a couple of years ago when, during Black History Month, one of the events was organised jointly across networks. I’m now looking at how I can work with my colleagues across the civil service who are working on these important issues. I recently had a conversation with [Department for Exiting the European Union permanent secretary] Clare Moriarty, who’s the civil service faith champion, to talk about organising an event looking specifically at sexuality and faith.

I’m also aware that LGBTI is a very broad term. There are different challenges faced by different groups, and we want to build up a good understanding of what those are.

How will the civil service be celebrating this Pride season?

There is a civil service float marching at the Pride parade in London on Saturday, and there will be a civil service presence at Pride events throughout the summer in Newcastle, Belfast, Cardiff and Preston, we were also in Edinburgh earlier in the month. And speaking of intersectionality, there are other events we will be at too, like Black Pride and Disability Pride. I’m going to go to a number of those events – I’m just pinning them down in my diary at the moment.

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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