Performance not politics: How EDI helped the Department for International Trade achieve its objectives

Lately there have been accusations that EDI initiatives are politically motivated, but nothing could be further from the truth, writes John Alty, former interim perm sec at DIT
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By John Alty

03 Jun 2024


A few weeks ago, I responded to a Times editorial welcoming a crackdown on equality, diversity and inclusion work in government by arguing that in my time in government EDI work had helped us deliver our objectives through better recruitment and engagement with our people.  

My point was not to defend anything and everything which may have been done in the name of EDI, but to remind people that there is value in work on EDI in large organisations like government departments. 

Not that I claim to be a specialist in this field. That’s partly the point. My perspective is primarily one of a senior civil servant trying to deliver government policy. 

To set the context, when the Department for International Trade was set up in July 2016, I was appointed director general for trade policy. My role, with other colleagues, was to establish the capability and policies for an independent UK trade policy, something which had not existed for 40 years. Over the next couple of years we recruited some 1,000 staff, built teams and, to use the metaphor, had to design the plane while flying it. 

I also took on the role of board-level champion for diversity – later EDI – so was in regular contact with people in HR working on this agenda and staff networks dealing with gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disability and other issues such as social background as well as EU nationals, who were concerned about their status post Brexit.  

This covered the period of George Floyd’s and Sarah Everard’s murders. 

In my letter I identified the importance to our objectives of getting a wide range of recruits and the best people for the job. I also mentioned the value of different comms channels in keeping track of people’s concerns and motivations. 

There is always a question over how much is achieved by formal systems and how important is the overall culture of the organisation, which is about people’s behaviours and the tone set by senior managers. In my view, both were critical. We made a number of changes to our recruitment and promotion processes over time, through steps such as having – as far as possible – appointment panels which drew on a wide range of different people; holding summer schools for potential recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds; mentoring and reverse-mentoring schemes; and dedicated development programmes, for instance for people from particular ethnic backgrounds. In truth, it would be difficult to identify the results in terms of individual recruitments, except over time and at an aggregate level. And rightly so, as the decisions were made on merit.  

"There is always a question over how much is achieved by formal systems and how important is the overall culture of the organisation, which is about people’s behaviours and the tone set by senior managers. In my view, both were critical"

But many people, and not just from the groups I mentioned above, put in a lot of effort to show that they took seriously the concerns staff groups had about a lack of senior representation, unacceptable behaviour, feelings of vulnerability or lack of confidence. Whilst I’m sure the department was not perfect in how it dealt with these things, there was an energy and focus that I believe helped persuade people that senior staff in the department wanted everyone to succeed, and therefore that it was worth engaging with the more formal initiatives that had been introduced. 

We were asking a huge amount of many new staff whom we recruited, both from outside the civil service and within, to deliver our responsibilities as the UK left the EU. This was of course overlain with the impact of the pandemic, which took away none of the work but meant working in a wholly different way. I believe that our engagement on EDI issues of concern to our people undoubtedly helped motivate and maintain morale and delivery in these very difficult circumstances. 

We discussed in the department’s executive committee how we should respond to the deaths of George Floyd and Sarah Everard. It was clear that these were matters about which many of our staff felt strongly. This was not a political act: people may have had their own views about the politics, but we were – rightly –  not focused on that as a department. It was a recognition that people had been affected by a horrendous act, in one case driven by racism and in another by violence against a woman. But it was also, in a wholly different context, a reminder that people felt that we as an employer had a way to go to provide an environment in which everyone felt equally valued and safe. As a follow up to the Sarah Everard events, the gender network carried out work on how safe people – mainly women – felt working in and for DIT which identified some practical steps we could take, for instance in relation to late night working or challenging stakeholder behaviour where this was inappropriate. 

What we did as a department was not unique. But I hope this account corrects a narrative that this activity was invariably politically motivated and a cost without any benefit to the core work of the department. 

John Alty was a director general and then interim permanent secretary at DIT until 2021, when he left the civil service. He is now visiting professor in practice at LSE European Institute


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