Diversity in tech: in conversation with Kevin Cunnington

When it comes to championing diversity, the Government Digital Service is leading the way, beating industry averages and introducing innovations that have been adopted across government. In the first of a series of conversations between civil service leaders and experts from Civil Service Awards sponsors EY, GDS chief Kevin Cunnington shares his insights and motivations with Radhika Chadwick, Partner in Strategy at EY

By Radhika Chadwick

19 Dec 2018

Radhika Chadwick:  Why is diversity and inclusion important to you?
Kevin Cunnington: One of the principle values that GDS employees subscribe to is “reflect the society we serve”. If we don’t reflect the society we serve, clearly we aren’t doing a good job. If we don’t understand all the diverse perspectives, we will never design our services to meet all our user’s needs – it’s really that simple.

Among people who work in technology, 83% identify themselves as men, so only 17% identify themselves as women:  that’s the industry norm. Every algorithm is 83% likely to be written by a male, whether that algorithm is helping you drive your car or waking you up in the morning. I would rather see more of a gender balance, so algorithms reflect the society themselves.

Here in GDS, 42% of people identify themselves as women which makes a massive difference.  If you ever go into another tech organisation there’s usually just one or two women. Two years ago on International Women’s Day, I said we will create a gender balanced management team and we did. Until recently we had five women and four men and I think role modelling makes a huge difference. 

We also mandated that every interview panel in GDS had a BAME representative.  Prior to this about 18% of people coming in were BAME candidates.  We managed to almost double the number of BAME candidates. The candidates say that when there’s somebody like you interviewing you, you feel you can be yourself, and that helps the confidence of candidates. 

Also, the society we set up is not totally London centric. We need to be present in the regions.  We need to be supporting entrepreneurs, small, medium enterprises, these are all different dimensions to diversity, but I think they enable you to be better and give better outcomes for the country.

What are your short and long term objectives and around D&I?
The most important thing we have to change is the culture. GDS is a great place to work but we didn’t have a BAME network in GDS until recently. When spoke to our BAME colleagues they said role modeling is important, so we created this network. We also have evidence that BAME colleagues are more likely to feel bullied so we’ve rolled-out line management training to ensure that we treat people equally and fairly. 

Years ago, we hosted the first ever DWP diversity and inclusion conference, but it was really about basic race equality. We invited 250 non-BAME people because the problem with BAME representation is not with BAME people. I think you have to be absolutely honest and say the people who come to the race equality meetings are BAME colleagues, but this is not your audience.

So what will your legacy be? 
The Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government have also started mandating that all panels have to have BAME representation too, the diversity taskforce are going to mandate that all SCS panels across civil service have to have BAME representation. That will be a landmark moment that I feel I contributed to.   

What happens if we don’t prioritise diversity and inclusion?
I am worried that unless we start rebalancing how we think about success in society and social progress we are going to end up repeating the mistakes we have made in the past. It’s an ethical imperative and companies will say there is a commercial imperative but I would even go further. I think there is an existential imperative.

What are the main barriers to diversity?
Number one is culture - you need visible and authentic leadership. Number two is getting more senior role models particularly in the lower levels of management, otherwise people don’t believe it is possible to break through the glass ceiling. Number three is data – because must you understand whether the things you are doing are having an effect on the right people. 

What about social mobility?
It’s a subject we are really passionate about, we’ve got an internship program that gives people from different backgrounds the opportunity to come and see what it is like to work here One of our interns Anabelle, has just graduated – she came for a summer internship. The summer is long gone, but Annabelle is still here with us. She was going to do a three month internship and then go travelling, but she has liked it so much that she stayed, which is great for us!  

Any final thoughts? 
It’s all about the culture. You don’t need to try so much anymore because you have got the right kind of mix, a diverse workforce - it all kind of just takes care of itself.

Read the most recent articles written by Radhika Chadwick - There is no difference between Business to Business and Government to Business relationships

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