How an innovative project is giving ex-offenders a second chance in the civil service

Written by Emma Sheppard on 21 December 2018

The team behind a project to offer ex-offenders a new start with a job in the civil service scooped this year's CS Innovation Award. Kathie Bates, head of Civil Service Local, reflects on team's vision to give disadvantaged people an opportunity to change their lives.

Photo: Pixabay

It was in a ballroom in Southport, at a Civil Service Local event, that the idea to offer ex-offenders placements in the civil service was first conceived. “The offenders from one of the local prisons had put on afternoon tea,” Kathie Bates, head of Civil Service Local, says. “Sue Gray [now permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, then Cabinet Office DG of the propriety and ethics team] felt it was such a shame we could showcase the skills offenders have [at these events] but that we couldn’t do that in the civil service.”

After significant work with the first civil service commissioner, Ian Watmore, the Going Forward into Employment project was launched in October 2017 to do just that. It has been recognised as this year’s winner of the Civil Service Innovation Award, praised for the way it has successfully challenged the status quo. The pilot started in the North West of England and has since found placements for 10 ex-offender candidates across six departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office and HMRC.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. One ex-offender says: “I did not think someone like me would be given a chance in the civil service. It has opened up a whole new life for me.” Another says: “I’m so excited to start work and can’t believe how different my life is now. A big thank you for the opportunity.” Line managers report the candidates have settled well, are very professional and have been a real pleasure to work with. One describes the new member of the team as a real find who goes above and beyond the job description.


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Bates admits there have been significant challenges to overcome in turning the initial idea into reality, but one year on she’s incredibly proud of what the project team has achieved. “It’s been an honour to be part of something that’s given disadvantaged people an opportunity to change their lives,” she says.

Challenges included overcoming people’s initial perceptions and judgements, and working to reduce the lead time before they can start work. “When people are released from prison, getting employment is key and some of our processes are quite lengthy.”

The latest government statistics suggest many organisations are concerned about hiring ex-offenders – 50% would not even consider offering them a job. Just over one in four (26.5%) ex-offenders will enter employment a year after their release from prison, and experts suggest many of those who cannot access employment are left with little choice but to revert back to crime. Around 50% of ex-offenders will reoffend within 12 months. The charity NACRO has been campaigning for employers to remove questions about criminal records from application forms where it’s not directly applicable to the role. Statistics suggest those with convictions find it eight times harder to get a job than the rest of the population. 

Key to bringing ex-offenders on board at the civil service was simplifying the traditional recruitment criteria, Bates says. This was justified on the basis that these are for short term placements – they are for two years, after which candidates can apply for permanent civil service positions through the regular channels – and it recognises that many applicants won’t have had the usual exposure to the job market that other candidates have. “They often haven’t got the necessary skills and experience of interview techniques, assessments and competencies,” she adds.

“They do go through tests [but] … if you’d spent the last 10 years in prison, you’re not au fait with IT and competency framework, et cetera. We tried to look at a different way of getting people in, supported by a change in the rules.” 

There are now plans to increase the number of placements in the North West and expand the project to other areas, including the South East and London, as well as to other underserved groups, such as veterans and care leavers. “We thought offenders would be the most difficult [group] so we tackled that first,” Bates adds.

The Civil Service Local team also picked up the health and wellbeing gong at this year's awards, and won praise in 2014 for excellence in reform. Bates believes the team’s success is down to a culture where everyone is encouraged to suggest new ideas. “It’s just about creating the conditions for people to have a go,” she says. “It’s building people’s confidence and creating the conditions that it’s ok to try something. Make them believe change is possible.

“We’ve done things slightly differently [with this project] and it’s been good for the offenders [and] for the people in the civil service. It’s helped build their capability to better service the people we’re here to serve, which can only be a good thing.”