The civil service is committed to becoming the UK’s most inclusive employer by 2020. But how is it getting on? Tim Gibson listens in to a roundtable about the topic to find out
Anyone who knows the civil service will understand that it’s not been lacking in what the US business guru Jim Collins calls “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (BHAGs for short) in recent years. Consider the government’s commitment to deficit reduction following the 2010 general election, for example, or the ongoing pursuit of better productivity, both internally and in the wider economy.
Perhaps less high profile is the commitment outlined in 2017’s A Brilliant Civil Service to becoming the UK’s most inclusive employer by 2020. The document, which serves as the government’s diversity and inclusion strategy, gives clear expression to the vision: “We want all civil servants to feel that they can be themselves at work, valued for the distinct perspective that they bring, and able to go as far as their talents will take them – irrespective of their sex, gender, identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, faith, age or socioeconomic background.”
As BHAGs go, that’s certainly one with laudable intentions. But it’s a big ask, even for an organisation that already has an enlightened attitude towards diversity and inclusion. So how is the civil service getting on, with two years to go until its self-imposed deadline? And what more can be done to achieve its aim?
An inclusive gathering
These questions were under consideration at a roundtable sponsored by PA Consulting during Civil Service Live in July 2018. The striking thing about the group was its sheer size: nearly 20 people gathered to discuss the topic, coming from senior positions across Whitehall. As the chair Richard Riley, director of economic crime, cyber and anti-corruption in the Home Office, remarked: “Inclusion is vital to what we do. It is morally right, and helps engender trust and legitimacy in the government. Inclusion and diversity are also spurs to innovation, which is critical to [our] success in meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow.”
This last theme was picked up by a number of contributors, including Helen Judge, director general of strategy and performance at DCMS. “Diversity of thought is the most important thing,” she said. “We won’t make good policy or get decent delivery unless we enable people from all backgrounds to contribute their ideas and creativity.”
The need to avoid “group think” was a major finding of the Chilcot report looking at the UK’s role in the Iraq war. This requires a workforce that feels confident in challenging received wisdom. As Carola Geist-Driver, legal director at OFGEM, stated: “We need to eradicate a culture in which people think they have to say the right thing. We should value and encourage people to say when they find something wrong. We might hide the diversity that is [in our workforce] if we don’t encourage that.”
A changing workforce
As Chilcot recognises, there is a cultural issue here. Thomas Fourcade, deputy director, southern England region in the Department for International Trade, picked up on this when describing his own experience as a relative newcomer to the public sector: “I was shocked when I joined [the civil service] about how I seemed to be almost this rare beast of someone who came from the outside . Virtually all recruitment is from the same gene pool – how do you get fresh thinking, people who don’t know what they should and shouldn’t say, unless you recruit externally?”
Fourcade expressed the view that every vacancy in the civil service should be advertised externally as a matter of course, on the basis that it would open appointments up to a broader range of applicants. But Lorraine Jainudeen, HR director for DWP, was quick to point out that this step alone is not enough to attract a more diverse workforce.
“We need to reframe the offer,” she said. “Thinking about the new generation [of employees]: what’s important to them, what’s the offer? To them, the civil service seems frumpy and old. So there’s a bit of a marketing and PR job to do. I was amazed when I joined at the quality of people, and of work, and the impact you can have.”
Nick Newman, partner at PA, said: “[I think the issue] is largely to do with diversity of thought. In our business, civil service clients are expecting us to bring that, and increasingly we see it coming from youngsters. The millennial generation have a different perspective, they are innovative and show a creative spark. If we allow [existing] behaviours to prevail we will suppress that spark.”
As well as appealing to a wider range of applicants, Jainudeen suggested that recruitment practices should adjust in order to make it more possible to appoint candidates who offer something a bit different. For example, she argued against competency-based recruitment, welcoming the move towards strength-based assessment.
Ian Watmore, first civil service commissioner, was quick to encourage such innovation. “My thought [when I listen to these suggestions] is ‘just go for it, because you can’,” he said. “No one’s saying you have to do [recruitment] one way. Provided you can justify that it is open and fair, we’re happy. Just go and do it.”
As well as attracting a broader range of recruits, the group agreed that there is an onus on those in top jobs to effect real cultural change across government. This may involve a commitment to encouraging smart working among employees, giving people flexibility to fit work around their other commitments. For example, Mark Holmes, deputy director, individual employment rights in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said that flexible working enables older people, new parents, and those with disabilities or long-term health conditions to pursue careers – thereby enhancing productivity and facilitating greater diversity in the labour force.
As it happens, Laura McCambridge, Defra’s deputy director of future farming, has first-hand experience of the challenges of balancing family life with a demanding role. “I have two children just under the age of two,” she said. “Much of being brave enough to take [a senior role in the civil service] is to do with your manager and whether they can support you in the right way and [enable you] to work flexibly. It’s a challenge to make sure we have quality management right across the civil service.”
McCambridge’s comments point to a consistent theme in the discussion: the need for inclusion and diversity to be championed from the top down, with reimagined recruitment and working practices that attract, maintain and empower a workforce that more accurately reflects the society it serves. This is a significant challenge, but if the senior people who gave up their time for this discussion are anything to go by, there’s a clear appetite for change. In which case, maybe that 2020 diversity and inclusion target isn’t so big, hairy and audacious after all.