Abigail Agyei spent 2020 working on some of the most high-profile issues facing government. As a senior policy adviser in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s People, Places and Communities Division, she began the year in a team working on race and minority ethnic equality policy and work commemorating the Windrush generation, and then moved towards helping communities cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has greatly affected black and minority ethnic communities across the country.
For these contributions, as well as her work with the department’s BAME network, Agyei won the Rising Star Award at the 2020 Civil Service Awards, recognising her work in what she tells CSW has been a “busy and challenging” year.
“It has also felt incredibly rewarding,” she says. “It has been a mix of supporting communities as effectively as possible, and also trying to support my workforce, with my BAME network hat on.
“Before Covid, I was working in the race equality team engaging on our international commitments on race as well as engaging with Windrush communities, particularly through the Windrush Day grant scheme that our department holds. And then when Covid happened, there was a real focus on working to help the affected communities, so I have supported the team on that.
“I have also been part of the BAME network for three years as head on events and communications. Everything that happened this year following Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s death meant I have worked on this additionally in the evenings and weekends to support our ethnic-minority workforce.”
She describes the year as “tiring and challenging, but incredibly rewarding in many parts as well”, as it has been spent working on the kinds of issues that motivate her as a civil servant.
”The reason I was interested in becoming a civil servant, and being in public service, was to support minority and marginalised communities in general. The civil service is the way I’ve been able to do this because of its reach in supporting the public and directly working on policies to support these communities. That’s definitely the reason I chose to be a civil servant and seven years on I’m still here. I think that’s been reflected throughout my career, of wanting to support and amplify the voices of marginalised communities.”
She says MHCLG is “doing great work to make sure that we’re reaching those hard-to-reach communities”.
Reflecting on her own area, she says: “We are seeing improvements with the community champions work we do, which works to engage with communities who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We engage with local authorities and voluntary and community sector regularly and are helping to expand their work in supporting these communities, and offering a range of interventions that are helping to build trust and empower communities.
“In particular, a lot of work is being done to engage with communities on the [Covid] vaccine, and I think we’re doing a really good job of making sure we’re listening to communities’ concerns and answering these concerns, and we are seeing uptake increase. I think it’s important that we’re seeing a lot more medics and doctors from ethnic-minority communities talking about the importance of vaccines and how effective they are – people are seeing these community champions, people who look like them, talking about the vaccine.”
Agyei is also proud of her work in the last year supporting conversations in the department around race in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. “I am definitely proud of how I’ve been able to push and support the conversations about race, and to hold the department and civil service to account in regards to race, because I’ve been very vocal about how we can only really effectively support communities once the civil service is more reflective of the communities we serve.
“The conversations we’ve been having with the BAME network were happening long before George Floyd and the pandemic, but obviously it’s been heightened recently, and I’m proud of being able to have those conversations. I’m proud of the blog I wrote this year about my experiences as a black woman dealing with the pandemic and George Floyd’s death, the reach it has had, and just trying to amplify the voices of how I think many black people were feeling. “
How did it feel to win the Rising Star Award?
“When my name was said, it really felt like a blur, but it was a really nice feeling. And especially reading about the work of the other two nominees, they are both women doing great work in the civil service. So I thought it really could go to any of us. So it was really nice to hear my name. Surreal, but it was a nice feeling.
“I didn’t think we were going to have a chance to give speeches, so I didn’t think that far ahead, but when I saw people given speeches, I thought ‘oh gosh, if I win this, I’m going have to say something’. I hadn’t given it much thought, so I didn’t overthink it.”
How did you celebrate the award win?
“I was on my own when I found out I won. But I had loads of colleagues, friends and family cheering me on and messaging me and calling.”
Who nominated you for the award?
“I first found out on our intranet, where we were informed of people who had nominations in general and I got sent an email from the Civil Service Awards. So that’s when I heard that I’d been put forward in three categories. Some members of the BAME network had put forward nominations for me, and then I found out in January that I’d been shortlisted to the final three of the Rising Star Award. It was lovely, as cheesy as it sounds, just to hear I’d been nominated in categories for anything in regards to my work, and then to be shortlisted was really nice and overwhelming.”
What are your career ambitions?
“There’s not been a blueprint through my career. A lot of the roles I’ve applied for through my career have just had the common theme of wanting to support communities that don’t feel they often get heard by government.
“I’m keen to continue to progress. Especially as a black woman in the civil service, I’m always keen to see more black women in the senior civil service. I believe the figure at the moment is only around 1%. I don’t know if that’s something that I thought about for myself right now, but I’m definitely always keen to see more of us and to support making this happen. So maybe it’s something I need to think a bit more about. But I’m definitely keen to continue to progress as much as I can in my career in the civil service to supporting vulnerable and marginalised communities.”