'Unwritten rules' hold back civil servants from less-advantaged backgrounds, report finds

Commission flags “urgent need” to put class and socio-economic inclusivity at the centre of diversity work
Buses on Whitehall Photo PA

By Jim Dunton

20 May 2021

A groundbreaking report has shone a light on barriers to boosting socio-economic diversity in the civil service that are hampering departments’ progress towards becoming more reflective of the nation.

The Social Mobility Commission found that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are “significantly underrepresented” within the organisation. It said those who manage to secure roles then struggle to “get on” because of “alienating and intimidating” behavioural codes that favour people from advantaged backgrounds.

The research found that the senior civil service has become more exclusive over the past five decades in terms of the proportion of staff from advantaged social backgrounds.  It said that at present, just 18% of the SCS are from working-class or “low social economic backgrounds”. In 1967, the figure was 19%.

Across the whole civil service, 54% of staff were described as coming from a high socio-economic background (SEB), compared with a UK-wide figure of 37%. The report said that the 34% of civil servants described as coming from a low socio-economic background was also “significantly lower” than the UK-wide figure of 39%.

According to the report, the Treasury is the most posh department, with 77% of staff described as being from a high SEB. The Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport is close behind on 76%. At the other end of the scale, the Department for Work and Pensions has the lowest proportion of staff from a high socio-economic background – just 43% – but the largest proportion of staff from a low one: 45%.

According to the report, civil servants from low socio-economic backgrounds often opt into operational career tracks with “clear bottlenecks” that limit their progression. It said others who join the civil service at higher grades move into operational roles because they see the skillset as “more transparent, tangible and meritocratic”.

Regionally,  London has the highest proportion of civil servants from a high SEB (66%) and the lowest proportion from a low SEB (22%). The north east had the biggest proportion of civil servants from a low SEB (48%), and 41% from a high SEB.

Unwritten rules for progression

The report said civil servants from lower socio-economic backgrounds face barriers to progression because of “unwritten rules” that help those from privileged backgrounds.

They include access to “informal guides” and “accelerator career tracks”, negotiated opportunities and “the Whitehall effect” that favours staff based in central departments in London.

The commission said people from advantaged backgrounds also benefit from the “studied neutrality” behaviour code that rewards those who speak with a particular received pronunciation accent; are emotionally detached and understated in the way they present themselves; and who take an intellectual approach to culture and politics that “prizes the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake” but which is not directly related to work.

The report said the code is “alienating and intimidating” for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but is important to understand in order to succeed.

Background checks

The commission also said there is evidence that civil servants from advantaged backgrounds often downplay their socio-economic privilege, with one in four of those who self-assessed as coming from a low socio-economic background actually having had an advantaged upbringing.

The report said interviews showed the phenomenon is rooted in “origin stories” where staff reach back beyond their own upbringing “to locate their background in extended family histories of working class struggle or upward mobility”. It said staff who have done that have effectively blinded themselves to the advantages they enjoyed.

Action plan

The Social Mobility Commission acknowledged the civil service is a role model for fair recruitment and diversity initiatives, but said the organisation clearly has “urgent” work to do if it is to properly represent the country's socio-economic diversity.

In a cross-departmental action plan published alongside its report, the commission said all departments should be required to report on their socio-economic makeup by location, gender, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.

The plan also called for national benchmarks to assess progress towards making the civil service more representative of the nation, and for greater scrutiny of progress within the SCS – including five-year targets to increase representation from people from low SEBs.

The commission also called for new legislation to make socio-economic background a protected characteristic, alongside gender and race.

The Cabinet Office said it is giving the report and action-plan proposal careful consideration.

“The civil service has a responsibility to reflect the people we serve and harness the broadest range of talent across the country,” a spokesperson said.

“While we may not agree with everything in the report, we accept that there’s more to do. We are making progress and 15 civil service organisations are ranked in the Top 75 of the Social Mobility Foundation’s employer index.

“With civil service roles moving out of London as we level up across the country, we’re increasing opportunities for our existing staff of all backgrounds to develop their careers, while also drawing on a new and diverse talent pool.”

The commission noted that the government’s Places for Growth programme, which is committed to moving 22,000 civil service jobs out of the capital by the end of the decade, will have “significant implications”.

However, it cautioned that the initiative risks reducing opportunities for civil servants from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are already in London.

Department for Transport permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly, who is also the civil service’s social mobility champion, said many of the commission’s findings are already being acted upon.

“We are strongly committed to driving progress on socio-economic diversity in the civil service,” she said.

“No-one should be held back from achieving their full potential because they come from a less privileged background.”


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