Sue Owen named as new civil service diversity champion

Written by Civil Service World on 30 June 2015 in News

DCMS permanent secretary Sue Owen will succeed Simon Fraser in role coordinating Whitehall's efforts to boost diversity, while the MoD's Jon Thompson handed remit to encourage people from lower-income backgrounds into the civil service

Sue Owen is set to replace Simon Fraser as the civil service's diversity champion when the Foreign Office permanent secretary leaves Whitehall at the end of July, it has been announced.

In a blog posted on GOV.UK on Monday night, cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood confirmed that Owen – who will continue in her role as permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – will succeed Fraser in the diversity champion post from August.

Heywood paid tribute to Fraser, saying the outgoing diversity champion had "spearheaded a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion across the civil service".

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And he said that Owen – who has served for the last year as civil service LGBT champion – had been "committed to inclusion in the workplace for many years".

Commenting on her appointment, Owen said she was "thrilled to be taking on this role at such an important time in the civil ervice’s journey".

"Under Simon’s stewardship we are clearer than ever on the barriers facing our colleagues from under-represented groups, and on what needs to be done to remove them. I look forward to working closely with my fellow permanent secretary champions to ensure that those actions become reality for civil servants all over the country."

Heywood also used the post to reveal that Jon Thompson, the most senior official at the Ministry of Defence, would take on the newly-created role of civil service social mobility champion, with a remit of helping to get more people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds into the service.

Announcing that the civil service would be commissioning new research into the barriers preventing entry to the civil for people from lower-income backgrounds, the MoD permanent secretary said the leadership in Whitehall knew it had "more to do on social mobility" and did not yet have "all the answers​".

Thompson added: "The research we are commissioning will give us strong insights into the barriers faced by those looking to join the civil service from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I am excited about driving this work forward. 

"Social mobility is something that is close to my heart – I went to a comprehensive school, took an apprenticeship at 18 and find myself now as the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence.
"I am passionate about encouraging individuals from all backgrounds to aim high and achieve their potential too, and in doing so to help the Civil Service become a truly socially inclusive employer."

The role of civil service diversity champion was created with the aim of coordinating Whitehall's efforts to improve the representation of disadvantaged groups in the civil service.  The new appointments come just days after the National Audit Office spending watchdog warned that civil service leaders still had more work to do to improve diversity and inclusion, including setting out how permanent secretaries will be held to account under the new diversity "Talent Action Plan" published in the spring. 

The Plan – which commits the civil service to an "intensive" two-year programme of help for departments and agencies so to "fully integrate diversity and inclusion into their business processes" – was launched in response to frank external research commissioned by the Cabinet Office which set out the barriers to career progression facing women, black and minority ethnic civil servants, LGBT officials, and those with disabilities or long-term health conditions.

In his final interview as diversity champion, Fraser told Civil Service World that while Whitehall was able to attract "a pretty diverse range of people into the civil service", people from under-represented groups seemed to face barriers as they "rise up the system" .

He added: "What these external reports show is that it’s harder for people from under-represented groups to rise up. So whereas 53% of the total civil service workforce are women, by the time you get to the senior civil service it’s only 38%, and indeed in the Foreign Office at that level I’m afraid it’s only 28%. 

"I’ve been looking a lot at the barriers. I think there are issues around culture; there are issues around some unfairness, perhaps, in the performance appraisal system – whether that’s unconscious bias I don’t know [see box below]. There are issues around career structures and you know, of course, the fact that some women at a certain point may have children and then re-entry into their career becomes a challenge.

"There are actually issues about the way men and women behave differently, which we need to understand. I also think we need to focus much more on disabled staff, where there is a perception, in the evidence we are getting, of a sense of discrimination against disabled people."

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Uncivil Servant (not verified)

Submitted on 30 June, 2015 - 13:36
Maybe Jon T would also like to look at ensuring that existing Civil Servants do not become members of lower socioeconomic backgrounds by dint of the appallingly poor pay deals that are threatened upon us!

Fran Elliott (not verified)

Submitted on 1 July, 2015 - 12:54
Congratulations to Sue Owen and I look forward to seeing what Sue is able to achieve in her new role. I, for one, would welcome work to stimulate the progression of more women into senior civil service roles - especially within the core sectors such as IT Services where they are currently under-represented. As an aside, I wonder if one of the issues in past years has been that larger volumes of women have taken up careers in sectors such as communications and marketing and that, now that now the number of professional communications roles in the Civil Service has declined (since the recession), we have lost many good women and we have undermined the communications profession by allowing so many internal communications roles to continue to be filled by non-professionals since (whilst other professions such as IT argue successfully for increases in their Retention allowances, other rewards and recognition). If moving people around to meet Government efficiency and financial targets, please could we take more care to assess and allocate transferrable knowledge and skills? Also, could we take care educate line managers in the dominant male hierarchies that they must be comfortable with actively encouraging (and allowing) women to take the initiative and allocate work to them that will enable them to the develop competency evidence they will need to apply on promotion to jobs at the higher level. There are cultural issues associated with all of this as research shows men are more likely to see themselves as suitable for roles and able to take them on, than women.

LITTLE LONDONER (not verified)

Submitted on 5 August, 2015 - 10:46
Top marks to Jon Thompson for showing himself to be living proof that you don't need to be grammar school and Russell Group university educated to be socially mobile. 20 years ago Sir Christopher France, the then PUS at the MOD, made great play about how his grammar school education (at East Ham Grammar, which my late father attended, albeit about a decade earlier than Sir Christopher) had given him the leg up. The world moves on, and attiudes need to move with it.

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