Failure to improve social mobility could "undermine the civil service", says top DWP official

Andrew Rhodes, director general of operations at the Department for Work and Pensions says civil service risks missing out on different views and perspectives "because we are not socially diverse enough"

By Jonathan Owen

01 Sep 2016

One of Britain's most senior government officials, who grew up on benefits and is now in charge of 74,000 civil servants, has warned that failing to improve social mobility threatens the future of the civil service.

Andrew Rhodes, director general of operations, at the Department for Work and Pensions, said: “Not only is social mobility the life-blood of our department, but failing to become good at this will ultimately undermine the civil service."

Writing in a government blog this week, Rhodes added: “There are many views, perspectives and personalities we do not yet tap into because we are not socially diverse enough.”

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Rhodes was appointed as the DWP’s social mobility champion by permanent secretary Sir Robert Devereux, and he used his GOV.UK post to recall the prejudice he encountered at the start of his career. 

“I didn’t expect to get where I am. When I first tried to join the Senior Civil Service, I was told I had little prospect of success or of much of a career. Not because of ability but because I was based in Wales and if I wanted to get on I really needed to 'go and do a policy job in London'. I was actually laughed at when I challenged this view.”

Rhodes said he felt strongly about the issue of social mobility because he had seen the challenges faced by officials in his own career, as he revealed details about his own background. 

“I’m the first male in my family, in a straight line from 1704 to now, not to be a coal miner," he said. "I am also the first person in my family to go to university. Many years of my youth were in a home dependent on benefits."

The civil service has a big job on its hands if it is to better reflect the society it serves, according to Rhodes. 

"Many organisations, including ours, naturally default to seeking and promoting people who look like the people who are already there, or fit a stereotype,” he added.

Those working in the civil service, irrespective of their backgrounds, need to have “the same access to opportunities, to fulfil their potential and rise to a leadership role, if that is their aspiration".

Rhodes concluded: “If we are to continue to succeed, we need to ask ourselves what a person brings, not the silent tyranny of wishing we had more in common, or that they fitted a profile or went to a particular school or university.”

His comments come after Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, announced plans to record data on the socio-economic backgrounds of top officials as never before. 

A new survey, being piloted with around 4,000 senior civil servants, asks officials a dozen personal questions, such as whether they had free school meals, lived in rented homes, or spent time in care while growing up.

The radical move, which will be rolled out across the civil service with a shorter list of questions, was prompted by growing concern over a lack of socio-economic diversity within the top tiers of the organisation.

Tackling the issue and transforming the civil service into the “most inclusive employer” in the country is one of his “top priorities” Sir Jeremy said last month.

He cited a “shocking lack of diversity” revealed by research commissioned last year, which showed “just 1 in 20 Fast Streamers from the 2014 intake coming from a low socio-economic background". The findings have acted as “a wake-up call,” Sir Jeremy added.

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