In conversation with Max Cairnduff: Enabling social mobility in the civil service

"The essence of social mobility is that where you come from should not determine where you get to," says the Chief Commercial Officer for the Department for Work and Pensions

Until recently, Max Cairnduff headed up the Cabinet Office’s Complex Transactions Team, a senior internal commercial consultancy within the government. He has recently moved and is now the Chief Commercial Officer for the Department for Work and Pensions. He is also the Government Commercial Function (GCF) Social Mobility Champion, a voluntary role he took on to inspire others to pursue a career in the Civil Service.

Growing up on a West London estate in the 1980s, it never occurred to Cairnduff that he would be able to realise such a highly influential role in government. Proxima caught up with Cairnduff to hear about his experience and how the Civil Service can drive social mobility that will benefit both the organisation and the whole of the UK.

What is social mobility and why is it important?

“For me, the essence of social mobility is that where you come from should not determine where you get to,” Cairnduff explains. “Your background is not your destiny.”

Cairnduff says there are two key reasons why social mobility matters. “There’s a moral reason and a business reason,” he continues. “The moral reason is that no one should be locked out of opportunities based on their background; that’s just wrong. And the business reason is that we don’t leave talent on the table. People might be polished by a good education, but raw talent is randomly distributed. If we don’t get talent wherever it happens to fall, we don’t have as good a workforce as we could.”

The value of having a range of backgrounds in the Civil Service

Cairnduff says that the Civil Service contains people from a wide range of backgrounds. Part of the inspiration behind Cairnduff becoming the Social Mobility Champion stemmed from a talk he gave a few years ago about the challenges of coming into a workplace when you are not from the same perceived background as your peers.

“There are certain unwritten codes in the workplace, and in Britain, I also think you’re judged a great deal by your accent,” Cairnduff says.

According to Cairnduff, many people do not declare their social background until they are “across the drawbridge” and have secured a role in their chosen field. However, employers must understand the background of applicants and staff to ensure they accurately reflect the people, product or service they serve.”

What is the Civil Service doing to attract people from a wide range of backgrounds?

Cairnduff explains that many people from disadvantaged backgrounds have family and friends who have certain limited expectations of the world of work that they may enter. “If you’ve not heard of a role, you won’t know how to apply for it,” he adds. To appeal to people from a wide range of backgrounds, the Civil Service runs an apprenticeship scheme with outreach programmes in several UK cities.

Cairnduff describes how the Civil Service has been collecting data on social mobility in its Commercial function, led by the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) team. “This data has started to show us where the gaps are and whether there’s a need for any particular type of training, for example,” he continues.

Departments within the Civil Service have their own D&I networks, which Cairnduff argues are vital to understanding and learning from people’s lived experiences. “A network gives people a chance to share their own experience and support each other, but it’s also a great funnel for ideas,” he says. “People do this voluntarily, too, often after a long day at work, just to help push it along. They bring their ideas, energy and passion for something they really care about.”

What advice would you give people from diverse backgrounds within the Civil Service?

Cairnduff says mentoring opportunities are available to staff from all backgrounds, and people should take advantage of that.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and ask for mentoring or shadowing opportunities,” he adds. “Joining a network can help you get to know people and share experiences. I know what it’s like for many people coming from a different background, you feel that you don’t want special treatment, but I say where there’s a potential opportunity, grab it! You can be open about where you’re from.”

How can Civil Service leaders support social mobility?

Cairnduff says it is really important that leaders get behind social mobility programmes. “I’d say to leaders within the Civil Service, get engaged with a social mobility network. It’s good for you to get a range of perspectives,” he adds. “Invite people to talk about their lived experience from a social mobility perspective, be open to new conversations. Finally, really think about using inclusive language. For example, not everyone will understand certain Latin phrases or rugby references.”

Cairnduff believes that the Civil Service should represent the British public; so therefore, by definition, it should include people from every possible background in the UK. “We need these different perspectives as, ultimately, these will impact the policies that we implement,” he concludes.

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