Civil service race champion Richard Heaton has said the organisation is “missing a trick” by failing to prioritise black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates in the drive to boost external recruitment into senior commercial and digital roles.
Heaton, who also serves as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice, said the civil service does lots of recruitment into very senior jobs – where BAME representation remains low.
“I think we’re missing a trick about, for example, senior recruitment in the commercial and other specialist fields," he said. "We are going to tackle that as it will help crack the ‘white peaks’ problem."
Heaton, who has been race champion for three years, told civil servants in London last week that he was “embarrassed” to have to represent the voice of BAME people in high-level meetings.
Diversity champion roles are held by staff at permanent secretary-level, and since the Treasury’s Sharon White left government “we haven’t got anyone round the perm sec table who is visibly minority ethnic”, he added.
Official figures show that just 4.3% of senior civil servants are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, compared with around 10.6% of all civil servants and 12.5% of the working age population.
Speaking at the BAME into leadership conference, which is run by Civil Service World’s parent company Dods, Heaton said he believed action on racial equality would be needed for around another 10 years before the civil service makes the kind of progress that has been made on gender diversity.
He said improved racial diversity was needed across the civil service but the case for it varied by department, and that MI6 chief Alexander Younger had told him that one of his organisation’s major learnings from the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war was about diversity of advice.
At the same event Labour’s shadow minister for industrial strategy Chi Onwurah pointed to the government’s newly launched Ethnicity facts and figures website, which shows the existence of racial “disparities across so many sectors of society and government”.
Following a review into how people from different backgrounds are treated across a range of public services, the departments for work and pensions, justice and education are to take immediate action, with announcements of future government work to follow shortly.
Asked about how civil servants can ensure diversity issues are baked into policymaking, Onwurah said: “The only real answer is to have people with different backgrounds and experiences in the room.
“If you haven’t got people of different backgrounds in the design team then you need to look at a trendy thing called co-production – finding effective ways of bringing people with those backgrounds into the design process as volunteers, study groups or pilots.”
Onwurah, MP for Newcastle who was an engineer for two decades and very often the only female, black, Geordie or northerner in the room, cautioned civil servants to recognise unconscious bias in others without internalising it.
“Don’t succumb to the blame and change the victim culture,” she said, but added that staff are responsible for their own careers at the same time.
She also championed the role of networks, told BAME staff to seek out leaders to act as their workplace sponsors and advocates, and to challenge bad attitudes and discrimination where possible.
“Your lived experience is really powerful,” she added.