Civil service urged to shake up interview panels to address lack of black and minority ethnic leaders

BME officials "need to be part of the decision-making process", says Civil Service Race Forum chair Rob Neil, as he warns that meritocracy remains a "dream" for too many staff

By Jonathan Owen

04 Nov 2016

Ethnically diverse interview panels should be mandatory in order to boost the representation of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in the higher echelons of the civil service, according to one of Britain’s longest-serving BME officials.

Rob Neil (pictured above) — head of engagement networks at the Ministry of Justice and chair of the Civil Service Race Forum, made the demand at the annual BME into Leadership conference — hosted by CSW’s parent company Dods and the FDA union, in London.

Neil, who has been a civil servant for 33 years, reminded delegates that some government departments “insist on gender representation on panels” and said: “We need to be focussing on creating more diverse panels.”

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According to the latest report from the Civil Service Commission, which oversees appointments to top civil service jobs, black and minority ethnic officials who put themselves forward for senior roles are still “significantly less likely” to be interviewed than their white colleagues.

And while black and minority ethnic staff now make up 10.6% of the overall civil service workforce, they represent just 4.1% of the Senior Civil Service.

Neil told delegates that he believed the idea of meritocracy remained “a dream, a fantasy” for too many BME staff.

“I wish it were true, but all too often it’s not,” he said, warning of “the labyrinth that exists, the sponsorship that one requires, the fireside chats, the little handshakes" needed to secure top jobs.

When it comes to diversity, Neil said, “it can’t be a load of well-meaning white people telling a group of black staff how it’s going to be. That just isn’t going to work.”

Many managers “revert to type” when it comes to appointing and promoting staff, he said.

“They still recruit in their own image, they still recommend someone that looks and acts like them.”

“If you’re looking to encourage black talent, those people need to be part of the decision-making process” - Rob Neil, chair of the Civil Service Race Forum

And he argued that real change needs to come from the top of the organisation: “The top of the civil service is too white, and I’m not even just referring to colour and appearance, it’s too white in its approach, it’s too vanilla in its creativity, it thinks inside the box and delivers that as if it’s some kind of virtue.”

Neil warned that the civil service still had a “problem in dealing with racist managers when we find them”, adding: “When we find a racist and they are proven to be racist, we move them sideways, we even promote some of them so they can wreak havoc somewhere else.”

“We’ve got procedures and policies to get rid of those people and we have to use that,” he said.

Speaking to CSW after his address to delegates, Neil said the ideal of meritocracy “collapses in corners and areas of different departments”.

While Neil said the aim was for a civil service “where the best person for the job gets the job”, he warned that “the empirical evidence is that there’s something else going on”.

“In some organisations you’re up to three times more likely to end up in the bottom box marking [of the performance management system] if you’re from a BAME background. That can’t be innate, it’s got to be something at play — whether we want to look at unconscious or conscious bias.”

There is a “reservoir” of BME talent within the civil service which needs to be tapped into, he argued.

“If you’re looking to encourage black talent, attract future leaders from black communities into the civil service, progress talent and effectively get more colour at the top level those people need to be part of the decision-making process.”

The Race Forum chair added: “I would like to see mandatory mixed panels.”

Where that does not happen, people need to be held to account and explain why, he added.

“A really intractable problem”

Neil’s comments come amid a drive for greater diversity at the top of the civil service. People from black and minority ethnic minority backgrounds are conspicuous by their absence in senior roles, and none of the current crop of permanent secretaries are BME.

The government launched a wide-ranging "Talent Action Plan" last year, and perm secs have been given specific annual objectives for improving the diversity of their departments.

But senior civil servants at this week’s conference spoke of their concern at the current state of affairs. The low numbers of BAME people in senior roles is “a really intractable problem” which will require “long term relentless pressure,” according to Andrew Sackey, deputy director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC.

And Navroza Ladha, deputy director, EU, Equalities, Social Justice and Employments Benefits Team, DWP, commented: “There is a lot of unconscious bias in the system … it’s not that we are not good enough, it’s actually sometimes there are barriers in terms of the processes and the systems which are letting us down”.

Helen Grant: "decision-making is skewed"

The conference also heard from former equalities minister Helen Grant, who warned that a focus on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU could distract from the wider equalities agenda in government and beyond. 

“My big worry is that Brexit and dealing with that is going to dominate everything,” she said.

Grant, who campaigned to stay in the EU, remarked: “Because the language seems to be so geared towards immigration, and because we don’t get the language and tone right and we don’t always get our actions right, I’m worried that we might be in a situation where it is immigration versus our national identity and our values. And by that I mean diversity, inclusion, multi-culturalism, equality.”

She added: “I think because of the debate and because of the direction that we have to take for the next few years and that immigration drawbridge being drawn up, we’ve got to work doubly hard to make sure we protect all of those values.”

Grant also pointed out that the lack of BME representation goes beyond the civil service, saying parliament remained a “very white, middle-aged, male-dominated institution”.

“Only 6.5 per cent of members are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background,” she said.

And the former minister warned that a lack of diversity in politics, including gender diversity, could result in distorted government policies.

“It’s very noticeable, often at Westminster, that sometimes because there aren’t enough women, I think many policies are neglected, they are not promoted, they are not given enough attention […] policy is skewed, decision-making is skewed because there aren’t enough of us”.

She also stressed that BAME people who rise to positions of power “need to make sure that you put the ladder down to allow other people to climb up…we have to do it, we owe it to each other”.

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