I come from fairly humble beginnings. My mum came over to the UK from India as a teenager in the 1940s with her husband – a private in the Army – and my two-year-old sister. Mum was always grateful that the country had given her a home and she said to me on many occasions that I ought to pay back to society for the help she’d received. My dad was an alcoholic Scot who, when he was working, charitably would have been called a labourer. Mum had me when she was in her 40s. We lived in social housing in the East End of London in deprived circumstances, and mum kicked dad out when I was eight as he was a lousy provider and she could get more money to look after a young family by claiming benefits.
I was a bright kid, learned to play the violin and cello when I was in Year 2 and the clarinet and saxophone when I was 11. Mum died when I was still a child and I was raised by my sister, so once O Levels were over it was time to go out and earn money. I started my career in the civil service at 17, joining the Lord Chancellor’s Department as a CO (clerical officer – an administrative officer in today’s civil service). I loved it. When I was asked about my level of ambition, I replied that one day I’d be Lord Chancellor. The manager laughed and admired my enthusiasm, even if he couldn’t imagine a female Lord Chancellor. That was my first inkling that my background wasn’t necessarily a barrier to my progression – though my gender might be.
After a few years in the department I got married, left the civil service for banking, and then had two children. I decided to stay at home to give my children the emotional and mental stability I wished I’d had as a child, and worked part time in finance when they were older. The pull to work in the public sector was never far away and eventually I rejoined the civil service – coincidentally, back to the LCD, which was now called the Ministry of Justice.
‘Two networks were born’
I’d been in the civil service a few months when, in 2014, I came across the Talent Action Plan. Two words jumped out at me: social mobility. I asked around the department what was being done on social mobility, and no one knew much about it. But I knew people at the top would, so I emailed civil service chief executive John Manzoni. To my absolute delight he wrote back within a couple of days, said, “We need to harness your evident enthusiasm”, and put me in touch with the then social mobility lead at the Cabinet Office (the brilliant and passionate Imran Khan). At the same time a fabulous group of fast streamers wanted to form a social mobility network too, so with just a handful of people the Fast Stream Opportunity Network and the Cross Government Social Mobility Network were born. I’m co-chair, originally with (the equally brilliant and passionate) Charlotte Dring and now with Kate Lalor.
There was (and remains) senior level interest in developing social mobility within the civil service, in line with our desire to be the most inclusive employer by 2020. At our launch event in March 2016 Manzoni, chief security officer Campbell McCafferty and HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson spoke about the need to understand the challenges our people face so that effective changes can be made. We recognised we shared similar feelings – that we didn’t quite fit, or held ourselves back in conversations and meetings, and we determined to help the civil service do something about it.
Our short-term plan was to create the space for broadening understanding of social mobility within departments and to influence policy. We set our own targets: that 12 departmental networks would exist by the summer of 2017, and socio-economic background (SEB) measures would be agreed with a view to being collected from all departments. We also wanted to avoid London centricity, and aimed to make one hub outside of London a locus of attention in its geographical area.
Focus for 2018 and beyond
By the summer of 2017, 20 departments had their own networks, and this has since grown to 27. The first hub was created in 2016 in Darlington – “the Northern Nexus” – and four more have been developed in the South West and Wales, the South East, Scotland, and the East of England. These hubs join together civil servants from a number of departments in their region to broaden the opportunities offered locally. As well as raising awareness, these hubs host confidence building and raising aspiration workshops, and facilitate the sharing of best practice tailored to local needs. We are actively looking for people passionate about social mobility to set up hubs in in Northern Ireland, the Midlands, and the North West.
The SEB measures have been agreed, and these will be tested in this year’s People Survey, with a view to rolling them out across the civil service the following year. We are lobbying for departments to include them in their local demographic questions where possible and for non-departmental public bodies to adopt them voluntarily. We’re on target to have a baseline of data by 2020, which will help us to influence policy on social mobility.
One of the things we’re focusing on for 2018 is the professions. Our cross-government network has seized on the civil service initiative to build career paths through functions, and has commissioned a survey of all heads of profession to determine their approach to social mobility – alternative routes into jobs, for example. We’ve offered our services in helping them develop diversity and inclusion strategies. There has been a swell of appetite for our support, with 19 of 26 heads responding so far.
The network, which has seats on the Permanent Secretary’s Steering Group, is well placed to influence policy. During 2018 the social mobility champion role moved from Thompson to Department for Transport perm sec Bernadette Kelly. She is inspirational in the way she is setting out clear activity to make meaningful impact, and the four areas she is focusing on – data, intersectionality, regions, and professions – are directly related to our network’s action plan for 2018.
As well as co-chairing the cross-government network, I’ve been able to set up two departmental social mobility networks, at the MoJ and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I’ve helped promote the cross-government network across the private and third sectors, and have been able to bring their best practice into the civil service. From being an administrative grade at the start of my career I’ve had a break from the civil service and just passed a deputy director interview at the Cabinet Office. To borrow from Maya Angelou: “nothing works unless you do”. The past does shape you but it doesn’t need to define you, and the civil service really is a brilliant place to achieve your potential.