Editorial: Even a silence sends a signal

The lack of a diversity strategy speaks volumes

By Matt.Ross

14 Mar 2014

In February 2013, outgoing Government Equalities Office chief Jonathan Rees called for a new plan to improve diversity in the senior civil service. “The last equality and diversity strategy dates from 2008. We’ve been involved in discussions about publishing a new one, and now maybe it’ll be published in the spring,” he said. “It’s a real concern that, five years on and in a different climate, we haven’t published a new diversity strategy”. However, no strategy emerged.

In July, the ‘One Year On’ update to the Civil Service Reform Plan promised: “we will publish a new diversity strategy by March 2014.” But there are still no signs of it: head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake now says the strategy will be prepared “over the coming months”.

It is, says Sir Paul Jenkins – the departing Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary diversity champion – “profoundly disappointing” that the strategy still hasn’t appeared (see news and our full interview with Sir Paul Jenkins). He feels a “strong sense of failure” – but nobody doubts that he’s given it his best shot. Unfortunately, Jenkins found himself embroiled in a struggle within government over how – and, indeed, whether – to produce a new strategy. Most civil service chiefs see tackling racial discrimination as a core part of workforce development – but with delivery and budgetary challenges filling their inboxes, few spare it enough time or effort. Senior ministers, meanwhile, are generally sceptical about institutional efforts to promote diversity, and positively allergic to public sector targets. With the forces at the heart of government finely balanced, the result is stalemate.

So there’s stasis at the top – but at less lofty levels, civil servants are working to enable ethnic minorities to realise their potential. The Minority Ethnic Talent Association helps high-potential staff prepare themselves for senior management. The civil service’s apprenticeship and internship schemes are targeted at under-represented groups, whilst the Fast Stream is proud to have boosted its BME intake to 12.5% in 2012. Such efforts build a cadre of bright, ambitious, successful minority staff.

Unfortunately, if all these talented young people look upwards, they notice three things: that the very top of the civil service is almost universally white Anglo-Saxon; that progress on broadening that demographic appears to have stalled; and that the civil service as a whole has no plan for how, or whether, to do anything about it.

If this doesn’t change, the lack of ethnic minorities at the top levels – and the government’s manifest lack of urgency on the topic – will send an increasingly loud message to the future leaders so assiduously nurtured by these civil service projects.

Many may reasonably conclude that the best routes to the top lie outside government, and leave; those who stay risk finding that there are few minorities in key jobs because intangible but robust barriers keep them out. So a plan is required – and this plan must present the destination, as well as the route. That means it will require metrics – milestones, aspirations, targets; call them what you will – along with methodologies. And until it arrives, many talented ethnic minority officials – among them generations of future leaders – will remain sceptical about the government’s interest in guaranteeing them a fair chance. The government must publish a convincing strategy as soon as humanly possible – ideally, before yet another high-profile Whitehall diversity expert builds their swan song around an impassioned plea for the civil service to turn its rhetoric on equal opportunities into hard, effective realities.

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

See also:

Jenkins: delays to diversity plan ‘profoundly disappointing’

Exclusive: Government must act to boost leaders’ diversity, says Rees

Plus CSW's interviews with: Sir Paul Jenkins and Jonathan Rees

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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