Every month, just before CSW goes to press, I print a proof of the front cover and the team gathers round to check for sneaky typos or formatting errors.
Last month, with the production editor impatiently tapping his watch, we studied our perm secs’ round-up cover. We were happy with the design, but there was a collective wince as we surveyed all those white faces.
Of course, we knew as we were commissioning the entries that the very top of the civil service – namely heads of departments, devolved governments, high-profile agencies – was overwhelmingly white. But there was something very uncomfortable about the optics of our cover.
Perm secs round-up 2016: Britain's top civil servants review the year and look ahead to 2017
Civil service urged to shake up interview panels to address lack of black and minority ethnic leaders
Black and minority ethnic civil servants “significantly” less likely to be interviewed for top jobs
I wasn’t surprised, then, to receive a complaint about it. The considered, eloquent letter, from fast streamer Vedantha Kumar, raises some important points – which is why we have printed it in full below.
While I baulked at the idea that our cover implies there is no Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic senior civil servant “worthy” of the accolade of “top leader” – that could not be further from how we feel – as Vedantha says, words mean everything. We should have made clear that this was not our power list, but a selection of as many perm secs and agency heads as we could muster (Ironically, one reason why I’ve steadily increased the number of people we approach for the perm secs’ round-up is to make it more diverse from a gender perspective.)
I was saddened to read that several people didn’t open the magazine because of its cover. Right there on page three, the face of Rob Neil, chair of the Civil Service Race Forum and one of the country’s longest-serving black officials, featured on the contents page, steering readers to our coverage of the annual BME Into Leadership conference.
At that conference, Neil told delegates that the idea of a meritocracy remained “a fantasy” for too many BAME staff, and called for mandatory ethnically diverse interview panels (a position we support). Elsewhere in December’s issue, we challenged the new first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore on the lack of diversity in the SCS. “It’s just not acceptable to have an entirely white top table in the system,” he told us.
With no criticism intended of Richard Heaton, who is well regarded in the role, it should not be the case that Whitehall’s permanent secretary race champion is white. Nor, when we want to interview someone non-white about life at the highest level of government, should we have to approach alumni, such as Sir Suma Chakrabarti.
I sincerely hope that when we come to compile future perm secs’ round-ups, we will not be wracking our brains for BAME officials in Whitehall’s most senior roles. In the meantime we will strengthen our efforts to represent an ethnically diverse civil service in our magazine, and continue to hold today’s top leaders to account on this vital issue.
Vedantha Kumar's letter to CSW:
“The front cover referred to the civil service’s ‘top leaders’ and had a picture or 40 or so people. Not a single BAME person. Given the UK’s demographics you would expect about six.
"The civil service has a problem with ethnic diversity at the higher grades. This problem has been articulated by independent studies (e.g. Ethnic Dimension, 2014) as well as government reports (NAO report, Heywood/Maude 2015 study etc), as well as many CSW articles. And the civil service is responding, albeit perhaps slower than might be desired.
"Where does the CSW front cover fit in? With the caption of ‘41 top leaders’ and the lack of a non-BAME face, it emphasises quite vividly the lack of ethnic diversity at the top. It also implies that there is no non-BAME leader worthy of such commendation.
"The media has an important role to play in breaking down barriers. By seeing someone you can identify with succeeding in a particular field (e.g. a BAME civil service leader), it becomes more believable that you can reach those same heights.
"The CSW article was constrained by the fact that perm secs are all non-BAME. However, given that fact, it might have been preferable to say ‘41 perm secs/or organisational heads’ as the caption. It is a subtle change in wording, but words mean everything.
"I know a fair few people that didn’t open the magazine given its cover, and therefore didn’t see that it was referring to perm secs. They saw the cover and felt that CSW had arbitrarily chosen to leave out excellent BAME civil servants from the accolade of ‘top civil servant’. And they felt ever so slightly more that BAME people don’t belong at the top.
"I am well aware that CSW writes about and promotes issues of ethnic diversity, and takes these issues seriously. It does an excellent job. But I was taken aback from the latest edition’s cover and so wanted to get in touch.”