Hold perm secs to account on civil service diversity or risk backsliding, says spending watchdog

Report by the National Audit Office says Cabinet Office’s Talent Action Plan on Whitehall diversity needs measures “to track progress and help sustain momentum”

By matt.foster

25 Jun 2015

The civil service must spell out how permanent secretaries are to be held to account for improving diversity and inclusion in Whitehall, the public spending watchdog has warned.

Earlier this year, the coalition government published the findings of three Cabinet Office-commissioned reports, revealing the significant barriers to career progression which civil servants from under-represented groups still face.

Among their findings were an “inconsistent, uncoordinated” implementation of policies designed to ensure black and minority ethnic civil servants were recognised through promotion; a “paucity” of senior lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender role models; and a working culture in the senior civil service which was holding back disabled officials. The reports followed similar research on the experience of the civil service for women, published last autumn, which saw some female officials describe the culture at the top of Whitehall as “a bear pit”.

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The reports prompted cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to launch a “refreshed” version of the government’s ‘Talent Action Plan’, with a promise to “relentlessly focus” on improving diversity and give each permanent secretary “a clear, evidence-based objective relevant to their department for which they will be held accountable”.

In a study published this morning, the National Audit Office calls for the Talent Action Plan to include concrete accountability measures for the most senior officials, in order to avoid the fate of earlier efforts to improve diversity, which the NAO warns have “not led to sustainable change”.

“Accountability for the delivery of the [Talent Action] Plan is not strong enough or supported by clear measurable outcomes,” the watchdog says. 

“Accountability was found to be one of the biggest barriers by the commissioned reports. So far, accountability for diversity involves regular reporting via the Cabinet Office on actions being taken under the Plan. 

“The Cabinet Office is developing a delivery plan in which it intends to set out a new accountability framework, but the details of this plan are not yet complete. The Plan itself does not provide a clear set of measurable objectives. Although we recognise that target-setting may not be the solution, some measures are required to track progress and help sustain momentum.”


The NAO's report paints a mixed picture of Whitehall's diversity record. According to the latest figures, 53% of all civil servants are women. However, at a senior level, female representation stands at 38%, with women representing just 6 out of 17 permanent secretaries.As the watchdog points out, representation of women at a senior level has improved significantly since the late 1990s, with 15% of the senior civil service made up of women in 1996.

Minority ethnic representation has also risen in recent decades, increasing from 4% in 1988 to 10% in 2014. But the NAO notes that this is "still two percentage points below the overall percentage of the working population who are minority ethnic”, and points out that minority ethnic representation in the senior ranks stands at 7%. 

The watchdog says the representation of people with disabilities in the senior civil service “continues to remain low”, at 5% of the total senior workforce, in spite of “some initial progress”.

While the NAO says the current Talent Action Plan demonstrates that the Cabinet Office has “increased its focus on this issue and has recognised the wider importance of an inclusive environment”, it warns that the measures could still be too reliant on the personal commitment of the current Whitehall leadership, rather than being properly joined-up with wider civil service reform efforts.

“Diversity and inclusion are crucial to the success of any reforms to the civil service and need to be managed together, especially as further staff reductions in the civil service are likely and the impact on diversity must be understood,” the NAO says.

“Much of the current progress is being achieved by the leadership prioritising diversity. If this changes, there is a risk that further progress will be marginal if these strands are not aligned effectively.”

To try and remedy this, the NAO calls on the Cabinet Office to draw up a business case outlining the benefits of diversity and inclusion, which it says should “identify links and business benefits to any reform of the civil service”.

“The business case should bring out the benefits of taking an inclusive approach and the impact this has on decision-making, service delivery and innovation,” the watchdog recommends.

“Each department should integrate diversity and inclusion into its workforce planning, for example by looking at the diversity of the talent among their staff. Departments should also tailor the business case to its business outcomes and objectives.”

While the NAO presses for more detail on how the latest diversity push in Whitehall will be measured, it does single out some departments for praise, and suggests the Cabinet Office could do more to highlight successes.

“Some departments including the Department for Work & Pensions and the Home Office show good practice in diversity and inclusion,” it says. “The Cabinet Office should encourage and enable these departments to share their knowledge while ensuring that messages are consistent. It should also draw on the insights these departments could offer in making further developments to the Plan.”

'More work to do'

Responding to the NAO’s findings, a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said the civil service was now “much more diverse than in the past” and “more diverse than the majority of British employers”. But the spokesperson acknowledged that there remained “lots more work to do”.

They added: “We must become more representative of those we serve in order to truly govern for one nation and open up even more opportunities for people from all backgrounds to progress

“We now have a diversity champion in every department who will hold our feet to the fire and help implement our Talent Action Plan.”

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) said the civil service “must do more to ensure its top ranks reflect society and staffing in departments”.

He added: “We have consistently raised these issues with the Cabinet Office and it is very disappointing it wasted the opportunity to utilise our expertise when developing the latest version of the Talent Action Plan.”

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