Diversity strategy: 'The civil service is finally listening to BAME voices'

Rob Neil, chair of Civil Service Race Forum, argues this strategy moves beyond a tick box approach to diversity and calls for a radical culture shift across government


By Rob Neil

20 Nov 2017

'The civil service should move beyond the tick box approach to diversity'. Photo: Adobe Stock

At a recent conference, I listened to London’s deputy mayor – the impressive Matthew Ryder QC – explain that too many diversity and inclusion leaders spend time setting elaborate mousetraps but very few end up catching any mice.

Matthew’s analogy compelled me to reflect on my own 34-year career as a civil servant. In particular, I recalled those occasions when many of us felt content with activity that led to the launch of a comprehensive and glossy strategy. This time feels different. This time, applying lessons of the past, we are taking a more inclusive approach where employee voice and engaging leadership are valued.  It is now widely accepted that we simply need to do better at appointing more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff into higher positions across the civil service.

The root of our challenge lay in Whitehall’s outdated practices, policies and procedures, which had built up over generations and often failed to encourage inclusion. There needs to be a radical shift in organisational culture, especially for those who find it easier to hang on to their stereotypes and unconscious biases.

But the BAME voice is starting to be heard. The central diversity and inclusion team at the Cabinet Office has established an employee voice group, which includes representation from the Civil Service Race Forum (CSRF), a cross-government BAME staff network comprising over 30 departmental networks, which I chair. Our discussions informed the civil service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy launched last month – which included the first civil service-wide ethnic diversity programme, headed by a senior civil servant. Encouraged by insights offered through the McGregor-Smith review on race in the workplace, government’s race disparity audit and the Lammy Review, the civil service has finally developed an approach that will help it become more representative of the communities it serves.

CSRF has spent the past year crafting a Culture Change Framework which supports the diversity strategy. We have articulated a clear set of  principles that will move us beyond any traditional tick box approach.

Part of this is about personal relationships, which we on CSRF believe are key. I know this from my own experience. In the past, I’ve felt rejected by line management, and at times not even wanted to come into work. That changed when a senior leader recognised my talent and chose to mentor me, which encouraged me to bring my very best efforts to the workplace. At CSRF, we call on senior leaders to offer more mentoring and sponsorship to their BAME colleagues.

We would also like to see greater BAME representation in decision-making spaces. I’d like to see a member of CSRF sitting on or observing all strategic decision-making boards, to challenge group-think behaviour.

In the meantime, all leaders must encourage difference, resist traditional and often narrow norms, develop cultural competencies, reward good practice, solicit support where they need it, and apply a zero-tolerance policy to inappropriate behaviour. Only then will the civil service be able to move beyond the tick box approach to diversity and become the truly brilliant civil service that we all deserve. 

Share this page