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

The government's outgoing equalities chief has expressed his disappointment at the Cabinet Office’s work to improve diversity in public appointments, and called for the publication of a new diversity strategy to reinvigorate efforts to increase the number of women, disabled people and ethnic minorities in top civil service jobs.

By Matt.Ross

08 Feb 2013

Speaking in an interview with CSW, the outgoing director general of the Government Equalities Office (GEO), Jonathan Rees, noted that “the government has set itself the target that by 2015, 50 per cent of all new [public] appointments will be women, and it really does need to show how it’s going to deliver that target. While strategies and action plans might not be flavour of the month, the fact that they haven’t produced a strategy or action plan on this two and a half years after they set the target is a bit of a disappointment.”

Before the last election the GEO used to run mentoring programmes and other schemes to increase diversity in public appointments, Rees recalled, but “Cabinet Office said: ‘No, leave this to us.’ I don’t think I’ve seen much evidence of them driving the agenda sufficiently forward, but I hope that will move forward over the next few months.” He noted that the commissioner for public appointments Sir David Normington – who regulates the process by which ministers choose the board members of public bodies – has “been very strong on the issue of diversity”, but added that “it’s one of those issues where we need a lead from the Cabinet Office – and not just in terms of saying: ‘We wish to get there,’ because we all need to get there; we actually need some practical steps that we can take.”

Rees also called for a new strategy to improve diversity in the senior civil service (SCS): “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.”

While the GEO chief said that SCS diversity is still growing, he acknowledged that it’s in decline amongst permanent secretaries and pointed to a “risk” that the focus on diversity is weakening. “I don’t think you can doubt the commitment of senior leaders within the civil service to continue to promote diversity,” he said. “But if you’re not talking about it; if you haven’t got the leadership right; if it’s not seen as one of our core values – then there’s a risk. One of the things [previous cabinet secretary] Gus O’Donnell was really good about was that he talked about it all the time. He was passionate; he was visible; he was out there. I think perhaps we haven’t seen that same visibility in the same way, and that’s why I think a new capability programme and diversity strategy is really important going forward.”

Asked for a response, the Cabinet Office said that for 8-10 years the proportion of new female public appointees has “remained static around 36 per cent”, and explained that it is “working with colleagues across Whitehall as well as the private sector to modernise recruitment practices and attract a more diverse field of candidates”.

The spokesperson also pointed out that women now comprise 37 per cent of SCS, and “female permanent secretaries lead departments dealing with some of the most pressing issues facing the country”.

In the same interview, Rees condemned as “hugely disruptive” the repeated machinery of government changes that have affected the GEO.

See the full interview

Also see Editorial for CSW's opinion


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


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