By Aden Simpson

08 Aug 2016

The Civil Service Rainbow Alliance won praise at last year's Diversity and Inclusion Awards. Here, the CSRA's chair Oliver Entwistle tells CSW about the cultural gap that still exists between the top of the civil service and the frontline – and why he hopes the award will be a "catalyst for change"

The Civil Service Rainbow Alliance (CSRA) began in 2003 as an informal network of support for those who identify as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual (LGB) and other minority orientations. Over time it has grown into an umbrella organisation which today represents the interests of 20,000 civil servants spanning every government department.

“I would say it’s about 20% of my time,” says Oliver Entwistle, chair of the CSRA and senior programmer for HS2. “It’s never been a formally contracted thing, but I’m lucky enough to have had supportive line managers along the way, and been bolshy enough to make it happen.”

“A lot of my time is spent going and seeing the permanent secretary, diversity champions and the Cabinet Office, and making sure they’re delivering on things. And the other big part is making sure that networks and individual members get the support they need within their department.”

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In November last year, Entwistle, along with CSRA vice-chair Kate Scott-Hughes, won the Diversity and Inclusion Award for Championing LGB People.

“For a long time there’s been a general sense in the civil service that there were some very tricky issues affecting LGB people,” Entwhistle adds. “According to the Civil Service People Survey for example, bullying runs about twice as high as it does for heterosexual people. 

“There’s really low engagement and happiness scores for bisexual people and basically – putting it as simply as possible – if you live in a big city you tend to have a relatively good experience.

“If you work on the front line, or you work in a slightly more rural setting, you’re more isolated, and you may encounter homophobia and biphobia when you’re engaging with the public, and you may encounter it from colleagues.”

Entwhistle and Scott-Hughes produced the first ever Role Models Guide for LGB People, including 50 LGB role models from administrative officers to permanent secretaries, organised civil service-wide conferences with guest speakers and LGB-related workshops, and ran several pride events across the country.

They also worked alongside Ben Summerskill, former chief exec of Stonewall, to compile the report Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – a review of the barriers to career progression for talented LGB&T people.

“The report looked at the civil service, from top to bottom, through an LGB prism, to see what was working well and what’s not. It basically set out recommendations for things to improve, most of which have been taken on board, but at the civil service pace: so quite slow.”

Recommendations included working with the Cabinet Office to ensure only one team runs diversity, rather than five and reviewing the recruitment process so that it’s more attractive to potential LGB applicants.

“The tricky bit,” Entwhistle admits, “is trying to engage middle management with the benefits of letting staff participate in network activities – or just being more supportive of LGB employees in the office.”

“The rhetoric is really good at the top, but on the front line, if you have a particularly difficult issue, or if you encounter homophobia, managers don’t really know what to do with it.”

Entwhistle felt the main barrier to progress was too much focus on “organisational structures", rather than culture change, or setting “specific targets to meet at a local level".

“In some ways there’s a hierarchy of equality in the civil service,” he says. “Because there’s a long history of legal compliance requirements on race, disability and gender, they’ve got lots ideas about what to do there, but on things like sexual orientation, there isn’t as much legal compliance, and the civil service sometimes doesn’t quite get it. 

“So one of the good things about getting this award is that it’s raised the profile of issues that LGB people face. Hopefully it can be a catalyst for change.”

The shortlist for this year's Diversity & Inclusion Awards has just been announced

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