Peter Unwin: Whitehall has come a long way on diversity – but there is a dearth of minority ethnic or disabled leaders

The chief executive of the Whitehall & Industry Group discusses key lessons from his time as disability champion at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

By Peter Unwin

24 Nov 2015

The civil service has come a long way on diversity. Three of the four permanent secretaries I worked for in the last 10 years in DCLG and Defra were women, as were four of the six directors in my management team when I left Defra earlier this year. The atmosphere was very different, and more productive, than the male dominated senior civil service that I joined 25 years ago.

There is of course still more to do. The number of female permanent secretaries in charge of departments hit 50% in 2011 but has since slipped back. And the very top jobs can still seem a male preserve. But the even bigger diversity challenge is beyond gender. The top of Whitehall is still virtually free of ethnic minority or disabled leaders.

As with gender this is a long term challenge, with two key factors being the tackling of unconscious bias and the development of talent pipelines. A start has been made in that Whitehall departments now have board level champions for disability and ethnic minorities, as well as for other under-represented groups.

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In my four years as Defra's disability champion I learnt a lot. Disability covers many different circumstances, including visible physical disability, poor eyesight or hearing, chronic illness, or mental health. Different staff have different needs. But what unites them is a desire to be given the chance to perform to the best of their ability.

That requires what are known as "reasonable adjustments" to be made. These can be straightforward in some cases, such as a specialist chair, IT equipment, or hearing aids to be used in a meeting. In other cases they can be more complex and possibly controversial, such as adjusting somebody's objectives or targets to make sure that they are stretching but achievable. That is where the term "reasonable" indicates that a balance needs to be struck between the need to enable someone to achieve their potential and the needs of the organisation.

There are three things that strike me from my experience as disability champion. First of all the importance of leadership from the top. The fact that the head of the civil service has made diversity a visible priority, that all departments have diversity champions, usually more than one covering different aspects of diversity, and that senior managers have measurable objectives makes a big difference. It means that issues like disability are talked about at board level. At Defra we ran seminars for senior managers to understand how unconscious bias can work, for example somebody being seen as not having impact at meetings because they were hard of hearing.

The second was how important grassroots action could be. One of the best initiatives we ran at Defra was created not by management but by staff themselves. It was called "Break the Stigma" and was designed to get staff talking more openly about stress and mental health. Staff who had experienced mental health issues were encouraged to talk to others who felt under stress. Discussions about mental health are difficult for both those affected and often even more so for their line managers. This initiative helped to make those discussions happen and become slightly easier.
The third lesson was the importance of measurement. This is difficult because disabled staff often decline to record their disability. If however we can see how people are disadvantaged it is easier to make the case for action. When Chris Hadkiss, head of one of Defra's agencies, saw from staff survey data that they had one of the worst engagement scores for disabled staff in Whitehall, he worked with us to run a major campaign to tackle the issue. Within a year he had transformed their scores.
As disability champion I met regularly with my equivalents across Whitehall under the leadership of Lin Homer, who was then the permanent secretary champion for disability. We benefited hugely from discussing the common problems we were dealing with, such as making “reasonable adjustments”. That sharing of experience is immensely powerful, and even more so if it can be extended across organisations from the public, private and third sectors who are all grappling with the diversity challenge.
The Whitehall & Industry Group will be helping that to happen next Tuesday (December 1) when we run our major conference Taking Diversity & Inclusion beyond ‘Women on Boards’. The event will draw on experience and expertise from the public, private and third sectors. Speakers including DCMS permanent secretary and civil service diversity champion Sue Owen and president of the John Lewis Partnership Council Trevor Phillips will share valuable insights on what the sectors can learn from each other and what needs to be done to build and nurture a diverse and inclusive workforce.


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