The Cabinet Office race champion explains why he's "passionate about wanting to make a change" in the civil service
Last summer, Simon Tse wrote that two issues had brought a “sense of urgency and a sharper focus” to conversations about race: the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately affected people from ethnic minorities, and the murder of George Floyd in the US. The year before, the Crown Commercial Service chief executive had been named race champion for the Cabinet Office.
According to official statistics, around one in five Cabinet Office staff are from a black or minority-ethnic background – more than the economically-active population of the UK, and more than the public sector overall.
Yet that stat “masks a few things”, Tse tells CSW. “I am one of a very, very small handful of director generals that have come from an ethnic background; I was the first person with an ethnic background to take on the Cabinet Office [race champion] role – it had always been someone from a white background.” There are also too few directors and deputy directors from an ethnic-minority background, he says.
“I’ve experienced bullying and harassment and discrimination during my career, which is why I’m so passionate about wanting to make a change”
In an effort to rectify this, Tse has set up a Cabinet Office race board, with offshoot working groups on talent management, data – “I don’t think we had good data or enough data,” Tse says – and education. He nods to press coverage – not all of it positive – of the Let’s Talk About Race training modules, in which around 2,500 people in the department have taken part. He explains: “I wanted people to hear the lived experiences – not fabricated ones, not ones from another department – of what it’s really like in the Cabinet Office.”
The fourth working group is focused on governance and policies. In other words: “Is it easy for someone to declare that they’ve been the subject of bullying, harassment and discrimination? Are there things that we can do to improve?”
“I’m seeing lots of incremental changes across the organisation: bullying and harassment was down last year [across the civil service but] it’s gone up slightly this year in the Cabinet Office, so there’s more that we need to do,” Tse says. And there are also “microaggressions that might sound ‘micro’ to the person saying them, but to the person that’s receiving them, it ain’t micro at all”.
This is something with which he is sadly familiar. In his 2021 blog, he wrote about disliking his surname when he was younger, and having to explain how to pronounce it (“Tse pronounced as Chair, as in table and Tse.”)
Tse – whose father is from Hong Kong and whose mother is Welsh – recalls that for several years growing up in Swansea, he and his siblings were the only non-white pupils at his school. “So, can I talk firsthand of what it’s like being beaten up in the schoolyard all the way from infancy through to secondary school? Yes, I can,” he says.
“Has [discrimination] been overt during my career? I can only think back to a couple of times actually... But whether it was racial or whether it was something else, I’ve experienced bullying and harassment and discrimination during my career, absolutely, which is why I’m so passionate about wanting to try and make a change – not just in CCS, but also in the Cabinet Office. And, if I can, across the public sector as a whole.”
He says the Cabinet Office is making progress – “for some, it will be too fast; for some, it will be too slow.” He says he wants a “richness of diversity” in the department, which should encompass not just race but a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences.
“Because the Cabinet Office is right at the centre of policy development, we need a diverse workforce that knows what it’s like to come from a single-parent family, knows what it’s like to be on the breadline"
“Because the Cabinet Office is right at the centre of policy development, what we need is a broad representation of a diverse workforce that knows what it’s like to come from a single-parent family, knows what it’s like to be on the breadline,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with [being educated at] Oxford and Cambridge, but I want to make certain that we’ve got that richness of thought and understanding. Because there is sometimes policy across government that doesn’t work – and you think, well, actually, what were the voices in the room saying? Did you have the right voices in the room?”
One of the ways he’s trying to ensure CCS lives up to that standard is the way it recruits staff: having just opened an office in Birmingham, the service has run a recruitment campaign deliberately targeting underrepresented groups. “It meant that about 50% of applicants were people from ethnic backgrounds and different social backgrounds. That was maintained at the shortlist stage, and more importantly, it was maintained at appointment stage.
“You need to look at how you advertise roles, even down to the wording, the branding, the images of people that you use on brochures,” he says. “I’m really pleased that not only am I trying to instil that message at the Cabinet Office, but I’m trying to show through my own organisation that if you want to do this, it can be done.”
This is an extract from the cover interview of the February 2022 issue of CSW. Read the first half of CSW's interview with Simon Tse, in which he discusses CCS's work to improve public procurement, here.