By Matt Foster

11 Oct 2016

As the civil service tries to put meat on the bones of its social mobility strategy, Matt Foster meets the people trying to make the organisation more welcoming to staff from working class backgrounds – and shake off Whitehall’s “white, male and Oxbridge” image for good

It’s hard to think of a more Establishment job title than chief executive officer of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. But Jon Thompson – who joined the civil service as a finance director in 2004 – still remembers a few moments from his rise through Whitehall’s ranks when it became apparent that he wasn’t cut from quite the same cloth as some of his colleagues.

In 2006, Thompson – by then a director general at the Department for Education – was surprised to find himself “in the minority” of top 200 DGs across the civil service who had been to a comprehensive school. In fact, just five of his fellow DGs had attended the same kind of school as him. 

“When I first joined the board of Ofsted, two members spoke to each other in Latin,” Thompson says. “I asked them to stop but they didn’t and wouldn’t. In the end I called them out – and the chief inspector had to get involved. They were stuck in their ways.”

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Thompson’s route to the top of HMRC was, by all accounts, an unconventional one. At the age of 18, this son of a newspaper factory worker – fresh out of school, and a self-confessed “numbers man” – joined his local council as an apprentice accountant. From there he worked his way up, gaining vocational accounting qualifications before moving to consultancy firm Ernst & Young, where he served as a district auditor.

He was eventually drafted into the civil service during a mid-2000s drive to professionalise and bring more outside experience into the government’s finance function. Over the next decade, he rose to become the most senior official at the Ministry of Defence, before landing his latest gig at HMRC earlier this year. 

“People have a perception about what perm secs look like. I think it’s good if people can see some perm secs are like them. I like getting my story out there and speaking to staff” – Jon Thompson, HMRC perm sec

But that trajectory – state school, followed by vocational training and a career before Whitehall – still puts Thompson in a minority among his fellow perm secs. 

According to the latest research from the government’s independent Social Mobility Commission, 55% of the civil service’s departmental heads attended independent schools, compared to just 7% of the UK population. Meanwhile, separate analysis by the Sutton Trust found that, of the 149 most senior civil servants listed on political directory Dods People, just under half (48%) were privately-educated, with 29% attending selective grammars and a mere 23% educated at comprehensives.

As the Social Mobility Commission’s hard-hitting State of the Nation report noted recently: “Of course, the best people need to be in the top jobs – and there are many good people who come from private schools and who go to top universities. But there can be few people who believe that the sum total of talent resides in just 7% of pupils in the country’s schools.”

Reforming the Fast Stream: "We needed to do something very different"

In 2015, Thompson (pictured) – who says the civil service has “changed significantly in last 10 years” and become more welcoming of people from his kind of background – added a new string to his bow, becoming the organisation’s first dedicated social mobility champion. Part of that role, he explains, has involved providing a highly visible example of social mobility in Whitehall, and “busting the myths that all senior staff are the same”.

“People have a perception about what perm secs look like and what it takes to get to the senior civil service and be successful,” he says. “I think it’s good if people can see some perm secs are like them, as it raises aspiration. I like getting my story out there and speaking to staff.”

But the role is not just symbolic. Thompson regularly chairs meetings of the social mobility steering group, which tries to tear down some of the practical barriers holding back talented working class people – either from applying to the civil service in the first place or putting themselves forward for top jobs once they’re there. 

A major focus for the steering group has been reform of the Fast Stream, the civil service’s flagship graduate programme, and the traditional source of future Whitehall leaders. It has, since 2011, used a number of measures to assess the socio-economic background of its candidates – putting it ahead of many large employers who still don’t attempt to gather this data. 

But, says the civil service’s head of Fast Stream Gillian Smith (pictured below), the grad scheme has seen only “small, incremental changes, year-on-year” in its socio-economic diversity, improvements that “haven’t been anywhere near as dramatic as we needed them to be”.

“We knew that we needed to do something very different and we thought it would be useful to get somebody external to come in and help us look at that with a fresh pair of eyes,” Smith says.

That pair of eyes belonged the Bridge Group, a social mobility consultancy tasked by the Cabinet Office with carrying out a warts-and-all look at the Fast Stream. 

Among its stark findings, the consultancy found that just 4.4% of successful applicants to the scheme came from the poorest backgrounds, compared with 24% of the overall graduate population. That’s an intake the Bridge Group noted is “less diverse than the student population at the University of Oxford”.

The report also diagnosed “low levels of awareness” of the Fast Stream among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with the programme seen as both “attractive and intimidating” to the less well-off, and a lingering perception of the wider civil service as “white, male and Oxbridge”.

The Group meanwhile found that a larger proportion of candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds (44%) did not proceed beyond the scheme’s registration stage, compared to candidates from more well-off backgrounds (36.2%), even if they showed the same kind of potential.

“I think we knew we wouldn’t like what we would find" – Gillian Smith, head of the Civil Service Fast Stream

“Relative to the number of Fast Stream appointments made annually, there are a high number of lower SEB candidates who do not progress beyond registration, and who also have the characteristics of candidates who perform well in later stages,” the report said.

Smith is refreshingly frank about the report’s findings. “I think we knew we wouldn’t like what we would find, because all of the evidence that we collected internally and our own sense was that we simply weren’t shifting things quickly enough,” she says.

But despite what she describes as “some resistance in previous years” to tackling the problem, Smith and her team – armed with the Bridge Group’s hard data and recommendations – were determined to press ahead with a radical shake-up of the Fast Stream.

This has meant taking action on a number of fronts. Starting this year, the Fast Stream application process itself has been significantly overhauled, with online tests shifting their focus from verbal and numerical reasoning – shown to disadvantage applicants from lower socio-economic groups – to situational judgement tests. 

This, Smith explains, makes them “much more difficult to coach for” as well as more directly applicable to the kind of work civil servants will actually be doing. Numerical and verbal reasoning tests still matter, she says, but they have been moved “to the back-end of the process” so that they are now part of the assessment centre and integrated with a broader analytic exercise. 

Applicants who make it further through the process will, Smith says, find that interviews are “less focused on competency” and more on “strengths-based questioning”, including the replacement of face-to-face interviews with video questioning so that “everybody is asked exactly the same pre-recorded set of questions”.

“People are able to respond to that in a timed period on the app, in the privacy of their own study space,” she says. “They can do that at a time when they’re ready for it, when they feel relaxed and able to perform at their best, rather than feeling like it’s all hinging on an interview in an assessment centre where you can see your competitors around you.

“We’re hoping that this will go to the confidence issue and help people to be the best they can be in front of the interviewer on the day that they choose to take the interview.”

There’s also been a push to expand awareness of the Fast Stream in universities and schools through a more targeted and, CSW understands, better-resourced outreach programme. This will, Smith hopes, help the scheme hold its own amid stiff competition from rival employers.

“I think one thing that’s quite difficult for young people to understand is exactly what the civil service is and what it does,” Smith says. “It’s not necessarily as easy to explain to schoolkids as other careers.”

The Fast Stream is now focusing its outreach efforts on those universities and subjects that have traditionally been underrepresented in applications, and it has become a requirement for all current Fast Streamers themselves to do outreach work, a change Smith says is motivated by the view that “actually, talent will find talent for us”.

The head of the Fast Stream acknowledges that it’s early days for the new approach – but she is hopeful that there will be a noticeable change in the socio-economic diversity of the scheme in the next batch of figures.

Building staff networks: "You check progress with your people"

The Fast Stream rethink is certainly welcome news for two officials who came up through the scheme, and who have since gone on to set up the first ever cross-government social mobility network, designed to give staff from working class backgrounds a place to talk about their experiences.

Charlotte Dring now works in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s homelessness and support division, but, she tells CSW, she only got into the Fast Stream on her second attempt, and found the lengthy application and assessment process “really intense and gruelling”.

“There’s been a lot of work that the Bridge Group have done with the civil service now to shorten that down,” she says. “But after going through it for a whole year, end-to-end, and then not getting through, I did think: ‘I’m not sure I can go through that again’.”

“I felt grateful every single day to be in the civil service. And being grateful is a good thing – but I think it was the wrong feeling, because you ask yourself ‘how did I get in?’, or ‘do I owe somebody for it?’” – Charlotte Dring, DCLG

Meanwhile, Andrew Wight – who left a job in education after going deaf and wanting to find a more “disability- and social mobility-friendly” place to work – says he decided to apply for the Fast Stream “on a whim” after friends told him he might be in with a shot.

While Dring and Wight – who is now at the Border Force – ultimately succeeded in making it into the civil service, they both say their Fast Stream experiences showed how applicants from elite schools and universities often benefit from the kind of extra polish a well-off background can help bestow.

“In the kind of school I came from, no one sits there and gives you that kind of help with building confidence,” Wight says.

That issue of confidence is not just limited to the Fast Stream, says Dring, who tells CSW that she felt her first few years in the civil service were marked by a kind of “imposter syndrome”.

“I felt grateful every single day to be in the civil service,” she says. “And being grateful is a good thing – but I think it was the wrong feeling, because you feel like you’re kind of lucky – or you ask yourself ‘how did I get in?’, or ‘do I owe somebody for it?’”

But both officials say they’ve grown in confidence since becoming involved in the network and meeting others with similar stories. After a year in the civil service, Wight says he is “starting to feel a bit more comfortable” about his background.

“And actually I am quite proud that when I go into a meeting, I’m different from everyone else,” he says. 

“I speak differently, I sound different, I look different. Everyone else is using very long, verbose language and talking about scope and that sort of thing. I don’t speak like that – I tend to say it as it is. And I think the senior civil service are thinking about social mobility and have come to realise that the civil service needs to be diverse. Not because it’s got a moral obligation to be diverse, but because they’ve got to draw on views from different locations and different backgrounds. It makes good business sense, because those staff will think outside the box.”

“Actually I am quite proud that when I go into a meeting, I’m different from everyone else. I speak differently, I sound different, I look different” – Andrew Wight, Border Force

Dring says she is “extremely positive” about the direction of travel in recent months, and sees part of the role of the network – which has its own place on Thompson’s steering group – to ensure that the concerns of staff are properly represented.

“The centre can tell departments to implement particular policies,” she says. “But knowing whether anything’s happening, and whether the culture in departments is conducive to what we are trying to achieve? You check that with your people. So having that structure where messages can go up and down the system is really important.”

Getting the data right: "You need to understand what’s going on before you start to intervene"

So far, much of the civil service’s effort on social mobility have been focused on the Fast Stream, and as head of the scheme Smith says this matters because it acts “a sort of microcosm of what happens across the whole of government”.

But Whitehall’s ambitions go beyond simply trying to change the nature of its annual graduate intake.

The Cabinet Office has been working with both the Bridge Group and the Social Mobility Commission to try and find out more about the socio-economic diversity of the senior civil service as it currently stands, something which has never been measured on this scale. Thompson explains that this process has involved asking senior officials some deeply personal questions, including “where you lived when you were 14, the occupation of your parents or carers” and “what school you went to”. 

“The big thing about social mobility at present is that it isn’t measured – so I don’t have a baseline" – Jon Thompson

“The BBC has done the same with their senior staff too,” he says. “Very few organisations do this, so we’re trying to show leadership across the economy. I’m really interested in what the data says and how people feel about being asked, because that’s important too.”

The voluntary survey has just finished, and, despite some eyebrows being raised in the media when the exercise was first revealed, Thompson says he has yet to hear “any pushback from colleagues” – indeed, the response rate in his own department, HMRC, has been 79%. “That seems pretty impressive to me,” he adds. 

Jenny Baskerville (pictured), who heads up consultancy KPMG’s work on social mobility, points out that the civil service is not alone in trying to find a way to properly figure out the socio-economic background of its workforce – a strand of diversity that’s trickier to measure than the binary or multiple choice answers given when staff are asked about gender, disability status and ethnicity.

“We’ve been asking three standard questions: what type of school you attended; whether you received free school meals and income support; and whether your parents went to university,” she says.

“For quite a few years, those were seen as the best questions we could be asking people to get a general understanding of what someone’s background was like. But this move by the civil service and the Bridge Group is, I think, an acknowledgement that there are still quite a few limitations in just using those measures.”

Baskerville predicts that the civil service will “probably land on about five measures” at the end of the consultation process. “The million dollar question then is what do you do with that information,” she says. “In your workforce, what does that tell you? You probably need to know how that’s broken down by location at different grades, and what the different functions looks like, to really understand if your organisation is socially mobile.”

Nik Miller, director of the Bridge Group (pictured below), says there is a “dual purpose” to the exercise Whitehall is currently undertaking. Firstly, he explains, it will help the civil service to settle on a measure of socio-economic diversity that is “rigorous, dependable” and likely to give “a high response rate”. And, he says, it will help the organisation to answer the question: “What do we look like?”

“We’ve always said to employers that you need to understand what’s going on before you start to design policies and interventions to try and solve the problem,” he adds. “So this will help the civil service better understand its social patterning. Then you can start to ask if there are any blockers to progression, or whether there are particular sections of the civil service that are imbalanced in terms of socio-economic background.”

Miller points out that the there are likely to be “very wide” differences in the social make-up of individual government departments and agencies, and says leaders would benefit from “a bespoke analysis and a unique action plan” for improving social mobility, rather than a catch-all solution that may not be appropriate to their workforce. 

And while he’s cautious about “target-setting” to improve social mobility, he says the civil service has a chance to be “bold and ambitious” and use its work to put pressure on other big employers to take a look in the mirror. 

Thompson acknowledges that, until there is a standardised measure of socio-economic diversity in place, it will be difficult for outside observers to check up on Whitehall’s progress. “The big thing about social mobility at present is that it isn’t measured – so I don’t have a baseline,” he says.

But, at a time when the civil service is working through a pretty formidable in-tray – Brexit, a brand new government, ongoing spending restraint – Thompson is clear that social mobility is not some second-tier issue for the organisation’s leadership.

“There are two reasons why we should care, and this applies to all of the protected characteristics as well,” he says. “The more colleagues we have from diverse backgrounds – such as BME, disabled, lower socio-economic backgrounds – the more successful we’ll be at delivering public services, because we’ll reflect the people we serve. 

“And secondly, it’s about creating a vibrant and diverse organisation, which broadens our collective experiences and ways of thinking. That can only be a good thing.” 

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