‘The importance of diversity at senior levels is the difference of perspective’: reflections on working in the civil service with a disability

In the first of a series of articles about disability and working in the civil service, Alistair Watters, the director of the Grenfell site and programme at Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, talks about his own experience in both the private and public sector and what needs to happen to build candidates’ confidence that their disability won’t count against them.
Alistair Waters. Photo: Civil Service Commission

By Civil Service World

18 Sep 2020

Having started my career in sales and marketing of pharmaceuticals, I went on to set up and lead a number of small service businesses. While this was enormously hard work it was also amazingly rewarding both personally and professionally. The downside of this was a form of loneliness where I spent so much time away from home that it was increasingly hard to maintain relationships with friends and acquaintances, so I decided to move into the corporate world. I worked across many industries in the private sector including pharmaceuticals, financial services, telecoms, technology, media and broadcast media and retail. As a consequence I had the opportunity to lead a variety of functions varying from customer & marketing, property, technology, operations and programme management – often leading large corporate restructures to achieve a profit objective or delivering changes that organisations had tried (and often failed) to deliver. It was a great career and I value every second of it – but it wasn’t enough for me. I felt I wanted to do more than just deliver profits and “numbers” and to deliver things that really mattered – where better than the civil service? In 2017 I joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to lead their Programme Management Office to be ready for EU Exit and then in 2019 I took the opportunity to come and work with an amazing team managing the Grenfell Tower and engaging with the local community to realise the vision of the community led memorial commission to deliver a fitting and lasting memorial to the 72 people who lost their lives in the tragedy.

The civil service is an absolutely fabulous place to work. Its values ensure that as a disabled colleague I am guaranteed that this will not adversely impact on my career. To attract more disabled candidates this has to become not just a fact – but a widely acknowledged fact based on lived experience. As senior leaders in the civil service who happen to be disabled – it’s our duty to lead on this, shout about it and work with recruiters and others to make it an obvious truth.

I think that many disabled candidates and colleagues believe – even if they won’t say it – that there is an unconscious bias that will “get in their way” when they are competing against candidates without disability. We have to ensure that we go beyond acknowledging it to the point where we are building it into the fabric of recruitment processes. I think this goes well beyond “right to interview” and every hiring manager should be asked to consider how they will ensure this will not happen. It does not, by itself, overcome the doubt of the candidates that the bias is there – that will take time and a lot more work that we must do. We’ve achieved it with other protected characteristics – this should be no different.

What has been your experience of reasonable adjustments (if any), and how have these helped you to do your job?

In truth I’ve had mixed success in the time I have been in the civil service. My situation is a bit idiosyncratic so it makes it much more difficult and the team are working with me to achieve the right results. The process itself has been brilliant, it’s just finding the solution that’s been a bit difficult.

I’ve seen some brilliant examples of where reasonable adjustments have been made for disabled colleagues. These have ranged from completely different working patterns to specific solutions that deal with a disability. I’ve not seen this to this degree in any other organisation I’ve worked with.

I’ve seen some brilliant examples of where reasonable adjustments have been made for disabled colleagues. I’ve not seen this to this degree in any other organisation I’ve worked with.

What has been your personal experience of working in the civil service? What made a difference to you?

I came to the civil service naively expecting it to be a “nicer” version of the private sector but still with the same drivers and motivations. What I found was completely different from what I expected. People genuinely do come first here and that makes such a huge difference. For example. when my wife was pregnant with our son in 2017 and I needed to take time off – I assumed I’d have to ensure that nothing dropped and so when I went to my DG I had “plans” for all of this – what I was met with was genuine concern and the question “Why are you still even here? Go home and be with your family.” It was a huge revelation to me – and the point at which I utterly believed that what was being said, was meant.

Why is diversity particularly important at senior levels?

With my childhood in Belfast, working background and training I just don’t act, think, speak and especially write like many of my colleagues – I think they are awesome by the way. However, because of this I bring different lived experiences and perspectives to a conversation, I anticipate different issues and challenges and have other solutions that others don’t perceive. The importance of diversity at senior levels is this lived experience and difference of thought and perspective. Actively bringing it into the conversations from different groups with different background means you get the best of many and not just the best of a few.

What experiences did you have working at a senior level in the private sector? Are there lessons that the civil service can learn from the private sector in terms of recruiting disabled staff, provision of reasonable adjustments etc?

I was lucky enough to have worked for a number of great private sector organisations at senior levels. One in particular had a policy of providing people with whatever equipment and adjustments they needed to successfully fulfil their role – and they did. They made company processes including IT, estates and others work with the individual to ensure they had what they needed. In seven years at the organisation I didn’t once hear – or say – “no, that’s not possible” when a request was made for this.

What drives and motivates you in your career?

Throughout my career I’ve had several things that have driven me in whatever role I take. I love to make a difference with what I do – I recognised early in my career that organisations get “stuck” when trying to make changes. By being different, adaptable and flexible in how I think, how I act and how I lead a team I have learned that I can move things on and deliver the outcome needed. I also recognise that I inherited an ethos from my father of hard work who was a self-employed piano tuner and had to work incredibly hard to look after us. At the end of the day (often 10pm with an 8am start) he’d come in, sit down, have a cuppa and give a big sigh of satisfaction – knowing he’d done a hard day’s work well. I like that feeling too. Finally, I’m interested in service and achieving outcomes that others value – whether that be a “safe and ambitious exit from the EU” or better internet services or better banking. To achieve all of these takes ambition to be better, curiosity, imagination, hard work and leadership.

What are your interests and hobbies outside work?

From a very young age I’ve had a real interest in cars – something else I got from my dad. I find driving one of the ways to switch off and truly be “in the moment”. I read voraciously and love listening to music of all sorts. We have a two-year-old son – so right now the majority of interests and hobbies revolve around him. One of the huge benefits of the civil service is that I feel I can give him the time and attention that he needs and let work fit around this. What a great organisation to be part of.

This article is part of a series being produced by the Civil Service Commission ahead of their online Disability & Senior Civil Service Recruitment event, which is being held on 7 October from 15:00 – 16:30. For more information and to register to attend, please click here.

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