What’s the civil service doing to nurture black and minority ethnic leaders?

Whitehall can do more to boost the representation of BAME staff in its top ranks – but, says Angela Seesurrun of Civil Service Resourcing, there are already signs of positive change

By Angela Seesurrun

22 Aug 2016

It seems that barely a week goes by without an article on diversity in the civil service – either highlighting a lack of diversity, or promoting a new scheme to try and improve the situation, particularly at senior grades.

I have been a civil servant for around 15 years and have been unusually lucky in working in very diverse teams. At the end of 2014, I joined the Executive Recruitment team of Civil Service Resourcing, helping to recruit the most senior staff in the civil service. I heard the statistics – only 4 percent of the senior civil service made up of black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff – and, like others, thought, ‘why is this so low?’ This was particularly relevant to me as a BAME woman who likes to think that someday I could be part of that cadre.

However, having worked here for almost two years, my view is somewhat different. When reviewing the diversity figures for the campaigns we manage, I started to ask different questions, such as “What percentage should we be achieving?” and “Where do we find these BAME applicants we are trying to attract?”

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Our SCS pipeline is largely made up of staff currently at Grades 6 and 7, as well as senior leaders in the private sector. Office for National Statistics figures for 2015 show that non-white staff make up eight percent of civil servants at Grades 6 and 7. By comparison, the percentage of BAME board members on FTSE 100 companies is widely reported to be under six percent. 

Despite this sort of pipeline, Executive Recruitment, which currently handles around one third of SCS vacancies, recruits a greater proportion of BAME candidates. For most of 2015-16, our BAME appointments were around twelve per cent of our total and, at times, were as high as 18 percent.

Achieving better diversity levels has happened over time – and we are constantly looking for insight into how we can make further increases. The success so far has been managed through using inclusive language in our candidate literature, focussing on key criteria only, and using a simplified and recognisable application process consisting of a CV and short supporting statement.

"This will take time and require change in the external market that we recruit from, and in the feeder grades below SCS level"

We support vacancy holders to script appropriate interview questions and have made use of strength-based questioning where possible. This technique uses a more intuitive and accessible line of questioning as compared to competency-based interviews, and is known to improve the diversity of appointments. Questions are shorter and seek to understand both the candidate’s past experience but also relative motivation levels when confronted with different challenges.

The method is a good predictor of performance for roles where particular strengths are seen as markers for future success.  Additionally, when an executive search agency is sought for a contract with the Executive Recruitment team, we use their success in reaching diverse candidates as one of the key criteria.

We have used LinkedIn and professional jobs boards to widely publicise our roles and our outreach work ensures that we attract a diverse pool of applicants. We are also developing closer links with the Grade 6 and Grade 7 BAME networks to dispel myths and encourage the many talented staff at this grade to apply for promotion.

As we increase the number of departments that we service, we will be in a unique position to have a positive influence on recruitment across government, particularly within the SCS and professions.

Of course, we would ideally like the SCS ethnicity profile to match that of the general population of the UK and this should be our ultimate goal. This will take time and require change in the external market that we recruit from, and in the feeder grades below SCS level. Opening up recruitment at these feeder grades, as suggested in the recent Civil Service Workforce Strategy, should make a positive difference.

I am optimistic about the future and I know that we can do better, but we’re not doing too badly now and the direction of travel is positive. 

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