Changing the face of the civil service to reflect British diversity has been a key priority for civil service leaders recently – but cuts and job losses present a real threat to the progress made so far. Suzannah Brecknell reports.
For a few weeks earlier this year, after the appointment of Bronwyn Hill at the environment department, half of the permanent secretaries in the main 16 home departments were women. The proportion has since dipped slightly, with the departure of Minouche Shafik from the Department for International Development, but the growing representation of women in the very highest positions has probably been the biggest success story of the diversity agenda within the civil service.
As the figures below show, the proportion of female, disabled and ethnic minority staff in the senior civil service (SCS) has risen steadily in the last decade. Mike Emmott, of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, says the pace of growth is both significant and impressive. This success has been linked to strong and visible support from the cabinet secretary and other top officials; clear governance arrangements to ensure departments consider equality issues; and a focus on developing a full ‘talent pipeline’ through support networks, diversity champions and development programmes aimed at under-represented groups.
Now is not the time, however, for the civil service to rest on its laurels. Reaching equal gender representation at permanent secretary level was a “significant moment”, says Siobhan Benita, head of corporate managment and employee engagement at the Department for Health and the founder of Tabelle, a network for women within the civil service. But if there is to be continuing progress at that highest level, she says, the civil service must “concentrate on keeping that pipeline going” by building representation across the SCS – particularly at deputy director and director grades. “There’s a danger that we think we’ve done it now we’ve got all these great women at the top level, but we’ve got to keep pushing,” she says.
Roy Trivedy, chair of the ethnic minority group in the Department for International Development (DfID), is also concerned that the agenda may lose momentum as people approach targets set in 2008 to reach certain levels of diversity by 2013 (see graphs). “There’s a slight sense that some departments are beginning to say: ‘We’re almost there, so we don’t need to work harder’,” he says.
Alison Pritchard, the Government Equalities Office’s head of strategy, also believes there’s no room to be complacent. While the progress on women has been very good, she says, the figures around black and minority ethnic (BME) and disabled staff suggest that “unless we up our game, I think there’s a risk that we’ll start to slip backwards – not least because of some of the challenges ahead”.
Changing shapes and sizes
Pritchard continues that one of the biggest challenges facing diversity practitioners is the “major focus on restructuring and downsizing”. The way in which these processes are handled will inevitably affect diversity.There have already been a series of early-release schemes, in which managers have little control over the profile of departing staff, says Pritchard, and the impact of these schemes is not yet known. Departments are beginning to gather their own information, but cross-Whitehall data is not yet available. When that data comes in, she says, “if we find that existing under-represented groups are overly represented in the early-release schemes, then it’s going to make the challenge that much more difficult”.Alongside and following early-release schemes, departments have embarked on major restructuring activity which, in some cases, has seen up to 40 or 50 per cent of staff re-applying for their roles. In this situation, says Trivedy, managers and assessors must ensure that job specifications and assessment processes don’t incorporate “any biases which would preclude certain groups”. Natalia Langlais, co-chair of DfID’s ethnic minority network, emphasises the need to carry out equality impact assessments before making changes.
There are, says Pritchard, already examples of well-handled restructures. Some departments “have monitored and viewed their diversity position right through the process”, she says, enabling them to “see patterns where something is clearly amiss”. Others, however, are only now thinking about diversity: “They are a long way through the process,” she warns. “If you do it too late it doesn’t allow you to take action”.A senior civil servant working in diversity, who prefers not to be named, also says that the handling of restructuring processes has been mixed. The official praises the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, adding that it will soon have “a very good story to tell”.
Restructuring may present a particularly thorny issue for disabled staff, suggests Jeanette Rosenberg, chair of the Civil Service Disability Network. “We’re viewed as more expensive,” she says. “Potentially, we are more expensive – workplace adjustments cost money.” Managers won’t articulate this concern, she says, but the perception may still be influencing their decisions – consciously or otherwise – and less overt issues such as this remain a big challenge for all minority groups. There is “still a lot of recruitment in one’s own image”, she says, and some managers believe that to be effective, employees must work a certain amount of hours or in a given way.This latter point often hinders women and men with caring responsibilities, says Benita – a passionate advocate of flexible working – and “it’s still far too much left up to the member of staff themselves to prove that they can make it work”. She would like to see a change so that “the assumption is people might want to work flexibly, rather than waiting for that person to say: ‘I want to do this pattern’.” Line managers, she suggests, should be trained to offer such options unprompted.Disability seems to be one of the trickiest areas of the diversity agenda: while numbers are harder to monitor than those of women or BME staff, the figures for disabled staff show a slower rise. The 2009 staff survey also found that disabled people have lower than average scores for staff engagement – something that is being examined by a panel commissioned by the cabinet secretary. For her part, Rosenberg attributes the problem to a range of issues, from struggles to get workplace adjustments in a timely manner to a “blame culture” towards disabled staff. Supporting disabled staff is often “put in the ‘too difficult’ box”, she suggests, because the wide range of disabilities require different adjustments.If disabled people are to be supported, she says, not only should their needs be considered at the start of any departmental change, but those needs should be understood through consultation and engagement rather than decided by able-bodied managers. “There’s a great phrase in the disabled community: ‘Nothing about us without us’,” she says, “Don’t do things to us: talk to us, engage us.” Rosenberg notes too that while there are talent-development schemes for women and ethnic minorities, there is no equivalent for disabled staff, nor an official mentoring scheme – although there are a variety of support networks, and an internship scheme to encourage applicants to the Fast Stream.
The lack of a talent-development scheme for disabled staff does seem surprising, given the importance attached to this sort of work in supporting other groups. The commitment of managers to talent development – alongside greater use of open competitions, to broaden the pool from which senior managers are chosen – has been crucial to the success of the diversity agenda, says Sir David Normington, a former permanent secretary and now the first civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments. “It can sometimes seem like quite a long slog, like you’re not making progress,” he says, but the success in promoting women is “a very good sign of why it is worth casting your net wide and developing your talent”.Normington emphasises that as recruitment into the civil service falls, developing internal talent will become still more important. “We do have a much more diverse workforce at the more junior and middle levels; that’s where we need to be focusing our action,” he says.
The chances of a talent development scheme for disabled staff, however, seem slim. People have been asking questions about talent-management programmes, says Pritchard, with managers asking: “Is it worth having them, now that we don’t have the same volume of opportunities for promotion?”She suggests that “a fresh look at how those programmes are used and deployed can bring real benefits”. A more effective approach for the future, she says, may be to invest in “mainstream development programmes, rather than individual programmes for particular groups”, while actively promoting these programmes to under-represented groups.Normington, meanwhile, stresses the part which role models can play in encouraging talented staff to aim for the top posts. Both Trivedy and Rosenberg comment on the lack of role models for disabled and ethnic minority staff, with Trivedy suggesting that “those who are from BME or more diverse backgrounds in the senior posts really need to build that into their objectives: recognise that they are going to become role models”, and use their skills to support younger talent.Benita agrees that the attitude of senior managers from minority groups is just as important as their numbers. The women in top posts often worked flexibly for part of their careers, she says, balancing work and family, and are often happy to share their experiences with other women: “They’re looking to, and helping, the women behind them.”Governance
As well as departmental restructuring, the diversity agenda may be affected by reforms to the ways in which HR and training are delivered across the civil service. Overall responsibility for the diversity agenda now sits with the Department for Work and Pensions (previously it was with the Cabinet Office), where promoting diversity sits within the remit of the team responsible for civil service competencies rather than being a separate work strand. Pritchard believes this move presents a positive chance for diversity to be encompassed into the broader skills agenda, making it a mainstream concern – “provided that we don’t lose the attention [on diversity]”.“The opportunity is there to get it right,” she continues, “but also the risk is there to let it slip from the agenda, so I think it’s going to be an important 12 months to see whether we’re able to get that right.” Similarly, she sees the development of Next Generation HR and Civil Service Learning as positive moves, hoping that Civil Service Learning – as it develops a core set of training – will be able to “look at how to really get equality and diversity in there as part and parcel of everyday business”, she says.Alexis Cleveland, a former diversity champion and head of corporate services at the Cabinet Offices, also suggests that the development of a more cohesive and collaborative HR function could promote diversity. She believes that careful use of managed moves for talented staff can help to avoid ‘recruitment in one’s own image’, and a broader understanding of staff skills-sets across departments could allow senior leaders to pick from talented staff across Whitehall, increasing diversity particularly in the centre of government.
The business case
A diverse workforce can be a valuable asset because it can bring a better understanding of service user needs, emphasises Michael Keating, service head of One Tower Hamlets: the council team charged with promoting equality and cohesion. In the current climate, he contines, “articulating the business case for [diversity] is crucial, because of course there is an inclination that equality is a luxury for the good times”. He says that a diverse workforce becomes even more important “when you’re having to make really hard decisions about services”.This message is getting through to civil servants, says Pritchard, with officials linking diversity to broader business objectives rather than simple targets. “We’ve started to see a more sophisticated understanding about diversity in its relationship to outward-facing equality thinking,” she says. Departments are considering the type of skills they need to make sure services reflect the needs of wider citizens, and “therefore thinking through the ways in which workforce is important in delivering that”, she says. “So rather than this very bland, target-driven approach in diversity, I think there’s been an understanding of what the essence of it is, and what really we’re trying to drive through.”Trivedy seems less convinced that this culture change has permeated to all levels of the civil service. “This isn’t just about getting the numbers right and the top policies right; it needs to be ingrained in the culture of the department,” he says, “so that everybody recognises the value of diversity and it enables us to get the best from all staff regardless of their background.”
Line managers have a crucial role to play, he says, adding that departments should now be looking beyond the existing targets to consider “new types of ethnicity, new groups that are part of British society” and think about how these people can be better represented in the service. His point is echoed by Benita, who believes that the next phase of the agenda will be to consider different social backgrounds and experience as well as race and gender. The story of diversity in the civil service over the last decade is a positive one; but the challenge is now shifting. As Cleveland has it, the civil service has done good work in removing discrimination from its recruitment, and promotion processes are free from bias. The challenge now is to ensure that exit and retention strategies are similarly robust. As the impact of restructuring programmes becomes clear, and the prominence of diversity within reformed governance and training structures emerges, we will see whether this agenda really has been ingrained into the culture of departments, and whether – despite the risks which cuts and a shrinking service present – the progress made in recent years will be sustained in a smaller, leaner civil service.
**Notes on graphs: Figures for representation across the civil service are taken from annual ONS civil service statistics. Figures for representation in senior civil service were provided by the Cabinet Office. Figures between 2003 and 2005 on the chart for disabled staff are less reliable as the Cabinet Office was undertaking data cleansing and re-surveying during this period