As part of our series profiling up-and-coming leaders in the civil service, Marsha Osivwemu, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s natural environment portfolio head, tells Beckie Smith how she defied her own expectations to climb the ranks of central government and how she’s pulling up others behind her
Ohoto: Cabinet Office
The 2017 Notting Hill Carnival was bittersweet for Marsha Osivwemu. The festival of Caribbean culture was the first time she had seen the blackened ruins of the Grenfell tower since she had watched images of it being engulfed in flames weeks earlier.
Osivwemu, whose parents are Jamaican, had spent months outside of work helping to organise a float for the carnival in the same part of West London, while also helping the community recover as part of her day job.
“I learned I had quite a lot of resilience,” she says. Then a senior civil resilience policy adviser at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Osivwemu says her role following the Grenfell disaster, in which 72 people died, was some of the most important work of her career.
When Grenfell happened, she was already involved in the response to the Manchester Arena bombing a month earlier. She barely had time to appreciate the enormity of the two events, she says, until she saw the tower up close. “I was just so aware of how incredibly important the work I was doing was,” she adds.
Osivwemu has since moved to Defra’s Natural Environment Portfolio Office, where she leads the implementation of the government’s 25-year environment plan.
But despite having always aspired to public service, she hadn’t expected to work in central government. In college – she didn’t go to university – she expected to end up working for a local authority, the most visible form of government where she grew up in South East London.
But after having been made redundant from her job at Motability Operations, the company that delivers the government’s Motability Scheme, she found herself in the civil service “by accident” after a hastily-applied-for temp agency sent her to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (which would later become the communities department) under John Prescott. She was offered a year-long contract and then applied for a permanent position at the same grade.
A year later, she realised she should have aimed higher. “I think I undersold myself,” she explains. “I think the difficulty coming into the civil service is you don’t understand the grading systems or where your experiences might fit into that.”
Osivwemu chose the next jobs she applied for carefully. “I knew where I wanted to be, I had a five-year plan and I thought: ‘How am I going to get there?’”
A few obstacles led her to change course; after moving to the Home Office in Croydon, the assessment centre that stood between her and a promotion proved an insurmountable hurdle. “No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get through it,” she says. Unperturbed, she secured a promotion at her former stomping ground – DCLG (now the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government) – where she would stay for the next decade.
The next time she faced an assessment centre to reach Grade 7, she sailed through. “It’s funny,” she recalls. “Even as I went in I didn’t think I’d pass. I thought, ‘If I can’t pass it for my HEO, what makes me think I can now?” She puts it down to having a head for the strategic thinking the more senior role required.
Osivwemu’s experience – a determined ascent up the career ladder, but not an unhindered one – has framed how she sees her role as a manager and mentor. “I’ve always felt that if someone in my team is good and they’ve got the drive [to progress], it’s my job to support them to do that,” she says.
“There’s definitely a feeling that to be good at your job, you have to be good at everything connected to your job. A lot of people, if you tell them ‘You’re doing really well in this area, but this area needs a bit of work,’ they only hear the second part.”
She can relate to that, she says, and puts a lot of stock in making people feel valued.
Other challenges characterised Osivwemu’s own efforts to climb the career ladder – namely the fact she did not fit the stereotypical civil servant mould. “I heard other people talking about it but I [initially] thought, ‘Well, it hasn’t affected me.’ I never felt that being black or female or from a non-university, non-Oxbridge background had affected my career,” she recalls.
But that changed. “When I branched out to more challenging jobs and worked in different environments, it did feel like the culture was different and it felt like there was a problem. I didn’t feel like I fitted in; that made me open my eyes a little bit.”
She was appointed to the management team for MHCLG’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) network, where she developed a deeper understanding of the intersecting challenges different minority groups face.
“Diversity and inclusion work has been going on for years, and there’s really been a lot of progress, especially for women. But we’ve struggled on disability and on BAME… BAME civil servants are more likely to tick the ‘underperforming’ box [than their white colleagues], and they’re less likely to move up to senior positions. It’s much harder to break through that ceiling.”
At MHCLG, Osivwemu worked with the human resources team to improve its use of data, and to set up events to support BAME staff to progress. Since moving to Defra this year, she has joined the Inclusion and Diversity Group for two of its directorates and the working group for its Project Race scheme, which launched at the end of October.
Although she feels at home there, Osivwemu says the move to Defra – like her entry to the civil service – was not one she would have predicted. Nor was the extent to which she would be inspired by the 25-year environment plans she oversees.
The programme speaks to her because of the sheer scale of the challenge and possibility it encompasses. “The thing about the environment as a policy area is it affects everyone, right across society – and not just in the UK but all around the world.”
It will be a wrench to move on, she says – but she has the Senior Civil Service in her sights. She is enrolled on both the Future Leaders scheme and the Minority Ethnic Talent Association’s (META) Growing Talent programme, which develops emerging BAME leaders.
The two schemes have helped her cultivate her approach to leadership. “There’s a real focus on self-awareness. We did a lot of work to understand your leadership style and who you were as a person. I’m a real extrovert and I use that at work, but I learned I can also engage with my introvert side when I need to.”
“The environment affects everyone, right across society – and all around the world.”
They have bolstered her confidence too. A colleague on the META programme reminded her: “You didn’t just fall into this scheme; you’re here because you’re good.” Another, when she was concerned about feeling out of place, told her: “It doesn’t matter if you’re accepted; you can do the work.”
As for putting that leadership style into practice, “a lot of it is just about being myself. I really try and bring my whole self to work,” Osivwemu says. She grew up listening to Jamaican patois, which sometimes patterns her own speech in the office when she’s relaxed.
She has decided not to filter it out, instead telling people they shouldn’t feel intimidated to ask the meaning of an unfamiliar word. “When I’m relaxed and I show I’m comfortable doing that, I think it allows them to relax and feel like they can do it too.”