‘Political clout and better strategy’ needed to fix civil service inequalities

FDA chief says leaders should also do more to highlight working-class achievers in the wake of landmark report
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By Jim Dunton

21 May 2021

Ministers and civil service leaders need to take a more coordinated and strategic approach to dealing with class barriers across the organisation exposed in a landmark Social Mobility Commission report, the general secretary of the FDA union has said.

Dave Penman said the commission’s Navigating the Labyrinth study had painted a fair picture of road-blocks to progress that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds face both to getting into the civil service and building successful career paths.

The report, published yesterday, painted a picture of an organisation generally out of step with the UK workforce in terms of the proportion of staff from privileged  – often privately-educated – backgrounds, particularly in the senior civil service. It also highlighted a tendency for civil servants from less advantaged backgrounds to stay in operational roles that would not help their chances of winning promotion and to be resistant to adopting tactics – such as losing their accents – to aid their chances of promotion.

Penman said he believes the civil service is trying to improve social mobility across departments and that a lot of good work is going on. But he said a step change will be required to transform the current situation.

“What tends to be lacking in the civil service is a better strategy,” he told Times Radio. “We not only need political clout but also coordination and strategy from the centre.”

Penman said the Places for Growth programme, which aims to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of London by the end of the decade, is the “perfect example” of a plan that could work well if it has the right strategy and co-ordination.

“There’s no point doing this if what you’re going to do is parachute jobs of senior groups in Red Wall seats to suit the current political climate,” he said.

“You might move the senior job, but people are not going to be able to get the career progression because they can’t move between departments. Really what you need is a strategic overview for the civil service that says we’re going to move these jobs out, including senior jobs [and that] people can build careers somewhere else outside of London, not just have one job based in Darlington, or wherever.”

He added: “That’s one of the problems with the civil service, there’s a lot of good work ongoing but not a lot of coordination, strategy or political direction in it.”

The Cabinet Office has cited Places for Growth as part of its strategy for improving social mobility within the civil service. However, the Social Mobility Commission warned that shifting jobs away from the capital will damage the career prospects of London staff from less privileged backgrounds unless civil service leaders seek to adapt the policy.

The commission said one way that the government could seek to make sure departments’ new regional offices are more than just outposts would be to relocate “two to three” permanent secretaries to bases outside of London by 2025. It said the move should be part of wider efforts to ensure that regional hubs are places “true profession opportunities” are available.

Work should also involve setting targets for the number of senior civil service, policy and private office roles to be moved out of the capital, it said.

Penman also told Times Radio he believes the civil service can do more to celebrate the success of staff from less privileged backgrounds who have worked their way up to the highest level.

He said Sue Gray, recently appointed as second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, is a good example of someone who joined at the most junior grade and now has “one of the most senior jobs in the country”.

“Civil servants and senior civil servants are quite hesitant about talking about their backgrounds because of the nature of the job,” he said.

“They’re not public animals. A lot more transparency around data and actually talking about making it through what their journeys have been would be really welcome.”

Treasury tops departmental league table for privately-schooled staff

As CSW reported yesterday, the Social Mobility Commission Report shines a light on the extent to which the senior civil service is dominated by people from high socio-economic backgrounds, while the civil service as a whole has a majority of staff from advantaged backgrounds.

The Treasury tops the list of departments with the highest proportion of privately-educated staff – a factor that feeds into its ranking as the department with the largest proportion of people from high socio-economic backgrounds.

According to the SMC, 26% of Treasury staff are privately educated. The figure is 22% at the Foreign Office. The national average is 7%.

At the other end of the league table is the Department for Work and Pensions, where the proportion of privately-educated staff is 4%.

The report said that 25% of senior civil servants attended a private school. But it noted there are wide variations between departments, with 48% of SCS at the Foreign Office benefitting from a private education.

The SMC did not provide its own figures for departmental perm secs, but it quoted the Sutton Trust’s 2019 Elitist Britain report, which said 59% of serving perm secs have been independently educated.

Mind your language

One of the more surprising inclusions in yesterday’s Social Mobility Commission report was anecdotal evidence from one of the project’s 100 interviewees who described senior officials’ fondness for joking with each other in Latin at high-level meetings.

“There’s so much Latin and that really is real,” a deputy director identified only by the name Kristine told researchers.

“You know, I know that is a bit of a stereotype but it is so real. You’ll be in a ministerial meeting and they’ll sort of talk in Latin but they’re sort of making what you’ll realise later is a sort of joke about Brussels that everyone sort of understands and laughs.”

The Social Mobility Commission said the use of Latin or cricketing metaphors in work meetings is an example of the “studied neutrality” behaviours that officials use to demonstrate shared “cultural touchpoints”.

The commission said the broader “studied neutrality” behaviour code rewards those who speak with a particular received pronunciation accent; are emotionally detached and understated in the way they present themselves; and who take an intellectual approach to culture and politics that “prizes the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake” but which is not directly related to work.

The report said the code is “alienating and intimidating” for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but important to understand in order to succeed.

The SMC produced a 14-point action plan for improving social mobility across the civil service alongside its main report. Ministers have yet to confirm whether the plan will be adopted.

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