Philip Rutnam urges sharper focus on workplace adjustments to help civil servants with disabilities

Civil service diversity champion wants more info on levels of awareness and take-up of workplace adjustments among disabled officials – and says tackling bullying and harassment will require a change in culture

Civil service managers must have better data on the needs of disabled staff if they are to make the right changes to working environments, according to Whitehall's disability champion Philip Rutnam.

Rutnam – who is also the Department for Transport's (DfT) permanent secretary – was named as civil service disability champion last April, making him Whitehall's top official for ensuring that the organisation offers proper support to the 8.8% of civil servants who have a declared disability.

Speaking to CSW after a year in post, the DfT chief said his top priority was improving the standard and consistency of workplace adjustments in the civil service, allowing departments to better adapt their working environments around the needs of officials with disabilities.

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But that would, Rutnam said, require an improvement in the data available to civil service managers, including more information on levels of awareness and take-up of workplace adjustments among staff, and more robust measures of success for the central Civil Service Workplace Adjustment Service, which aims to help departments make the required changes.

“I want to get good management information, and good evidence about the quality not just of that central service but of the adjustment services provided by departments’ in-house teams," he said.

A report carried out for the Cabinet Office last year by campaign group Disability Rights UK warned that workplace adjustments to accommodate disabled staff were sometimes seen “as a privilege, not a necessity or a right”, and could be treated as a “cost as opposed to an investment” by departments.

It also warned that access to the civil service's most senior roles was still blocked to some disabled staff, because the jobs were "widely perceived to involve supreme flexibility in terms of working hours and location, exemplar communication skills and hyper-resilience physically and mentally".

While Rutnam told CSW that acting as disability champion could sometimes "feel like it’s about dealing with a series of negatives", he also stressed the "tremendously positive" aspects of the role, and the real difference that measures to help disabled staff could make.

“It’s about helping people to realise their potential, making sure we take away barriers that can get in the way of them being as productive and successful as they can be," he said.

The DfT chief cited the work of the Employers Stammering Network, of which the civil service is a founding member. Rutnam said he had met civil servants with stammers doing “hugely impressive” work – even in seemingly difficult contexts like communications or call centre roles.

“It can be done,” he says. “But we need to find ways of building on these things, and learning from what we’re doing, so that the question of ‘how can somebody with a stammer succeed as a civil servant?’ is answered without difficulty in the future.”

Bullying and discrimination

Rutnam was also pressed on what the organisation could do to tackle the bullying of disabled staff, after research commissioned by the government last year found that 56% of respondents with disabilities said they had experienced “discrimination, bullying and harassment” at work in the previous year.

The disability champion said taking on such discrimination would involve a wider change in civil service culture – and he acknowledged that some departments had further to go than others.

“A lot of that comes down to behaviours, attitudes, and above all to creating a culture in which it is much more normal, much more accepted to talk about these things,” he said.

“Take something like mental health. In many ways, mental health conditions have been a taboo subject. That is changing in society at large, and it’s changing a bit in the civil service – though in truth I see more evidence of it in some places than others."

He added: “We need to get to a place where these things are talked about, where it is accepted that mental health conditions are common; they are nothing to be ashamed of. I think if we achieve that sort of thing then we will remove some of the sources of bullying, harassment and discrimination.”

Rutnam recently wrote to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood and civil service chief executive John Manzoni setting out his five priorities as disability champion.

As well as improving workplace adjustments, the DfT perm sec said he wanted to improve talent management; make sure leaders were fully engaged with the disability agenda; ensure that mental health conditions were given just as much support as physical disabilities, and, by 2020, halve the 10% gap between disabled and non-disabled staff in the annual Civil Service People Survey's measure of staff engagement.

CSW recently reported on new research by the Prospect Union which appeared to show that staff with disabilities are more likely to be ranked as low performers and less likely to be given the top grade under the civil service's controversial system for measure staff performance.

While Rutnam told CSW he recognised the challenge presented by those figures, he said there were "lots of things" already taking place in the organisation, including ensuring that all managers and those involved in moderating performance reviews had undergone unconscious bias training shortly before staff reviews take place.

But he cautioned against jumping to conclusions on performance management based on the headline findings of the study.

“There can be other things going on beyond disability," he said.

"What’s the role of sickness absence, for example? There is other evidence suggesting that colleagues who take more sickness absence get lower performance ratings, so is that one of the causal factors? I have no doubts at all that it’s an important, challenging, but also complex area."

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