Jess Bowie: The civil service's proud record as a disability-friendly employer must not be undermined by performance management

From the CSW editor: A commitment to improving workplace adjustments for officials with disabilities is welcome. But possible discrimination is a real cause for concern

By Jess Bowie

03 Jun 2016

CSW’s office is sandwiched somewhere between the DWP and the MoJ, with a number of other departments nearby. Exiting the ticket barriers at St James’s Park tube one day in rush hour, it occurred to me that people using guide dogs, white canes and hearing aids were much more visible here than on other commutes – not least when I used to alight in the City of London for a previous job. Hardly a scientific measure, I know, but nonetheless a pleasing reminder that the civil service is a good employer of people with disabilities. 

Anecdotes I’ve heard back this up. Like a story about an official in the Crown Prosecution Service, whose work reviewing files from police officers and defence solicitors involved taking lots of phone calls. One day, without warning, he woke up to find he had lost his hearing. While he was undergoing medical treatment for his sudden deafness, the only way he would be able to continue doing his job would be with the help of a palantypist. 

The idea was that if a phone call came in, it would go to the typist, who would transcribe what was being said. The caller’s words would appear on the official’s computer, he would reply verbally, and the caller’s response would then be typed up – and so on. The CPS agreed to the solution. It’s hard to imagine many employers doing this. 

Whitehall diversity reports: culture of the senior civil service a 'barrier' to disabled officials
Performance management may be discriminating against BME, disabled and part-time civil servants, warns Prospect
Interview: Department for Transport perm sec Philip Rutnam on civil service disability support – and getting Network Rail back on track

Yet there is another side to the story that such anecdotes don’t tell. Last year, 56% of disabled respondents to a government-commissioned survey said they had experienced “discrimination, bullying and harassment” at work in the last year. And recent analysis of Cabinet Office performance management data by the Prospect union shows that disabled officials are more likely to be placed in the bottom, “must improve” box than their non-disabled colleagues, and are also less likely to be placed in the top, “exceeded” category.

In some cases, these separate statistics are doubtless linked, with the forced distribution element of the performance management system creating, or adding to a sense of discrimination among those with disabilities. 

Such trends are clearly on the mind of the civil service disability champion Philip Rutnam, and we asked him about them – and a number of other issues – in a recent interview. Rutnam says his highest priority is to improve the standard of disabled employees’ workplace adjustments, which can take in anything from large monitors for the visually impaired to allowing an official more time to complete a task. 

Hopefully part of his thinking will include how these adjustments fit in with the performance management system, and the quotas managers are expected to achieve. At the moment, unfortunately, there is a clear mismatch between the two. The civil service can rightly call itself an excellent workplace for disabled people, but in 2016 it remains an imperfect one.


Share this page