Whitehall's permanent secretaries have set specific objectives for improving the diversity of their departments for the first time.
The Cabinet Office has promised that the new "Diversity and Inclusion Objectives" for the civil service's most senior officials – published on Thursday – are "data driven and measurable", and will be the subject of quarterly performance reviews to try and ensure progress.
The objectives – available to read below – extend right to the top of the civil service, with Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood taking overall responsibility for increasing the proportion of women, black and minority ethnic, and disabled individuals across the senior civil service.
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Other pledges include reducing "over time" the gender pay gap in the civil service, overseeing a rise in the proportion of successful applicants from low-income backgrounds getting onto the Fast Stream graduate scheme, and improving the data available to Whitehall on ethnic background and disability status.
Progress made by individual departments will be measured a variety of ways, according to the objectives, ranging from improved scores in the annual civil service People Survey, to higher promotion rates for individuals with protected characteristics. Many departments have also chosen to focus on improving staff engagement scores, while there are specific pledges to create or support existing staff networks for those from under-represented groups.
The new objectives have been welcomed by the FDA union, with general secretary Dave Penman saying they would help test the government's "commitment to match its strong words with action".
But he added: "Whilst the inclusion of objectives for Permanent Secretaries has a role to pay in delivering change, this initiative will ultimately fail if it is viewed as something that is being done to employees rather than with their involvement and commitment. A greater emphasis on engaging with the unions representing those employees when developing and delivering the Talent Action Plan would be a welcome first step in that process."
While the civil service has made gradual progress in improving the representation of women, disabled people, and those from black and minority ethnic communities in recent decades, Whitehall still faces a battle to become more reflective of the wider country, particularly in its most senior ranks.
A recent report by the National Audit Office watchdog highlighted that while more than half of the civil service is made up of women, senior representation lags behind, with women taking 38% of SCS roles. Additionally, fewer than one in five civil servants at permanent secretary level are women, according to in-depth research published this week by the Institute for Government.
Minority ethnic representation has risen from 4% in the late 1980s to 10% of the overall civil service by last year – although that remains 2% lower than the overall percentage of Britain's working population who are from a BME background. Just 7% of senior civil servants are black or minority ethnic.
While disabled people represent 16% of the working population, according to the NAO, only 5% of senior civil servants had a declared disability in 2014.
Last year, the Cabinet Office commissioned a series of independent studies into the problem – including research on the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil servants.
Although Whitehall does not centrally collect data on sexual orientation, making measurement more difficult, the LGBT study warned that many officials still felt "pressured to fit a conventional mould" to make progress in their careers, and highlighted a "huge vagueness of accountability" for delivering diversity policies.
The reports prompted cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to launch a new version of the civil service-wide "Talent Action Plan", with a give departments an "intensive" two-year programme of support to make diversity a priority.
Earlier this week, Heywood unveiled four new external advisers – including – former paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes – who would be asked to keep an eye on Whitehall's progress on the issue.
'Very important step'
Speaking at the Institute for Government think tank earlier this week, the Cabinet secretary insisted that "real progress" was being made on the diversity agenda.
"We’ve got people who’ve looked at our policies and they would argue that the policies that the civil service has put in place are as good as any other organisation – if not in the world – then certainly in Britain," he said. “The issue is the application of them, getting that right."
Heywood said he remained "worried", however, about levels of BME representation, and expressed concern at reports of the "harassment and bullying" of disabled officials.
"We really do need to understand why we’re getting such bad figures on that," he said.
Heywood added: "This agenda is very important to me, it’s very important to Matt Hancock the minister, important to all our staff. We’ve got permanent secretary champions, some very good external advisors on this who we’ve just appointed... Each permanent secretary has got one or two very specific objectives that they’ve got agree with and then try and achieve those.
"The net of all that doesn’t mean we’ve delivered, but it will be a very important step in improving our performance on this agenda."
The document accompanying the new objectives (see below) also promises more comprehensive monitoring of the socio-economic backgrounds of civil servants, as the Cabinet Office tries to boost the proportion of individuals from low-income backgrounds entering the workforce.
Permanent Secretary Diversity Objectives 2015