Editorial: Diversity must not fall by the wayside as Whitehall cuts bite

The civil service's leadership is undoubtedly serious about diversity, but it has a tough road ahead of it

Senior civil service culture is “macho”, even “a bear-pit”. LGBT officials feel they have to “go back into the closet in order to get into the SCS”. Managers seem to regard workplace adjustments for disabled staff “as a privilege, not a necessity or a right”. There is a lack of role models for black and minority ethnic staff and an “old boys’ network” at the top. 

The staff comments that fed into Whitehall’s two recent diversity strategies make for deeply uncomfortable reading. As civil service diversity champion Sir Simon Fraser tells me in CSW's exclusive interview, he was “disturbed” by the findings of the independent research into barriers facing underrepresented groups in Whitehall, but not shocked. “What matters is how people feel about where they work, and I think that many of those comments are quite justified.” 

Despite a regrettable delay in publishing its two “Talent Action Plans” (the first of which only appeared in September 2014, five years after the Labour government published the last diversity strategy), Whitehall should be commended for holding a mirror up to itself, commissioning the research, and publishing the results, however awkward. 

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And now, as Fraser says, is the time to “motor on delivery” – whether this means instigating support mechanisms like mentoring and leadership learning sets, or addressing unconscious bias among managers. 

Change is not impossible. Just look at BIS, where permanent secretary Martin Donnelly’s years-long crusade to tackle gender imbalance has borne fruit. The department now has full gender balance in its leadership team, and part-time working and jobshare arrangements at its highest levels. 

BIS fostered a culture of openness, and started to be frank about the barriers facing women hoping to rise up the organisation. “Only then could we really ensure that the diverse personal circumstances of the staff would be taken into account, because only then would we know about them,” Donnelly has said.

Whitehall’s senior leaders are doubtless serious about diversity – and know their deeds must match their words. But they, and the managers who will be expected to deliver this change, have their work cut out. In a climate of continued retrenchment, the pressures are there for something to give. Adjustments for disabled workers, and acceleration schemes and mentoring programmes for underrepresented groups all have the potential to fall by the wayside. 

Value for money isn’t just a balance sheet, however. It is also about recognising the contribution of officials from the widest range of backgrounds and enabling them to excel. Under a government wedded to austerity, senior leaders must be extra vigilant in ensuring that the things that matter to the working lives of the staff serving that government are not sacrificed in the name of “efficiency”. 

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