'Damning' review of Cabinet Office calls for action on discrimination

Non-white staff report being marginalised and suffering from “microagressions” at flagship HR department
Cabinet Office

By Jim Dunton

23 Aug 2022

Leaked details of a review into discrimination at the Cabinet Office have revealed a host of concerns among staff and called for stronger leadership to embed a culture of respect and inclusion “from the top” down.

The report cites Civil Service People Survey findings that one in 10 officials at the department have suffered bullying, harassment or discrimination at work and combines it with new feedback from staff from underrepresented groups reporting that they struggled to be “respected and understood”.

The Cabinet Office hired market research firm Ipsos UK to undertake the review last year following concerns about discrimination at the department from the PCS union. However, PCS – which is the civil service’s biggest union – withdrew its support for the project in March, complaining that the process was flawed and was being treated as a “damage-limitation exercise”.

The review is understood to have been completed in the spring, but has only now been shared with staff. CSW has seen a copy of the 69-page document, which combines previously-conducted data and research with input from around 150 Cabinet Office staff.

It reports complaints that non-white civil servants have been left feeling alienated and have to “work harder to be respected and understood” in a department dominated by people with “posh London” accents who make others feel like outsiders.

One review participant from an ethnic minority said: “We have to be a certain way in order for people around us to perceive us as being just as valid as someone who went to Oxbridge.”

Other participants described times when their ideas had been dismissed but they felt those ideas would have been accepted if they had been put forward by a white colleague.

The report also contained complaints about “microaggressions” such as being mistaken for a colleague from the same ethnic background or consistently having their name incorrectly pronounced.

Female staff complained about a “macho” culture in the department, which resulted in their ideas not being respected – or in them being labelled as “rude” when they acted more assertively to mirror male colleagues.

The report said staff believed colleagues accused of discriminatory behaviour rarely faced disciplinary action, despite the presence of “considerable” evidence, and were sometimes promoted to new roles at the Cabinet Office or other departments.

Review participants said senior civil servants at the department had “varied engagement and understanding” of the respect and inclusion agenda. The report said that while a number of senior figures frequently hosted events and wrote blogs about their experiences, Cabinet Office staff were concerned that these experiences were not turned into “tangible actions” or “always seen as a high priority”.

The report said: “Several participants felt that SCS spoke about respect and inclusion because they had to as part of their job or personal objectives, rather than speaking about this from a place of genuine commitment.”

Review participants also felt that ethnic-minority employees were not being encouraged or supported to apply for talent schemes such as the Future Leaders Scheme for Grade 6 and 7 civil servants, while other development schemes were seen as a diversity and inclusion “sticking plaster”.

Participants acknowledged that the Cabinet Office was a high-pressured working environment, which sometimes led to “poor behaviours” such as shouting and unreasonable demands for delivery from senior employees.

The review group said that at such times other priorities got “dropped” and expressed concerns that poor behaviour could subsequently be replicated by junior staff, allowing it to become more widespread.

The review’s five pages of recommendations include a call for the Cabinet Office’s top officials to demonstrate a “sustained and constructive” engagement on the respect and inclusion agenda.

“Senior leaders including the permanent secretary should regularly communicate the Cabinet Office’s commitment to an inclusive workplace and acknowledge existing issues regarding the workplace culture and [bullying, harassment and discrimination],” it said.

The review also stressed the need to develop a transparent policy-design approach to take into account considerations surrounding protected characteristics.

“This approach should include regular ‘listening’ exercises to allow senior leadership to hear ongoing feedback from employees and involve a representative mix of staff,” it said.

“Actions to be taken based on this feedback should be communicated back to employees, as part of a ‘feedback loop’ and policy documents should include details of how staff were involved in policy development.”

Other recommendations included conducting a business-unit level review of diversity and inclusion best practice across the Cabinet Office to identify good practice, and then set business-unit-level targets.

The report also called for the development of a clear stand-alone policy document to communicate the seriousness with which bullying, harassment and discrimination is taken into consideration at the department and the leadership commitment to it.

“Damning and depressing reading”

A PCS spokesperson said the Ipsos UK report showed Cabinet Office management did not take accusations of discrimination within the department seriously.

“The report makes damning and depressing reading and its findings that management treated diversity as a ‘tick box exercise’ justifies our decision to withdraw from the process,” they said.

“While we demand a full overhaul of the system and a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of any kind, we note the report also says responsibility should come from the top.

“As such, we are prepared to work with the next prime minister to ensure discrimination within the Cabinet Office – and the entire civil service – becomes a thing of the past.

“We shall be watching the government’s next steps with interest so if they fail to take the appropriate action, we’ll be there to keep them on track and defend our members.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the department did not tolerate bullying, harassment or discrimination in any form and the review demonstrated how seriously addressing the issue was taken.

“We fully accept the independent report’s recommendations and we are implementing them in full, prioritising actions that will have the greatest immediate impact,” they said.

“This includes mandatory training for new line managers, developing more regular monitoring systems and ensuring senior leaders are accountable for leadership of respect and inclusion issues.”

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