Spending Review will not mean backsliding on BIS diversity progress, vows perm sec Martin Donnelly

Exclusive: Business department's top official Martin Donnelly tells CSW he will have "failed" if diversity agenda falls by the wayside – and sheds light on what the BIS 2020 review means for the organisation's regional presence

By matt.foster

17 Nov 2015

Progress on gender diversity at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will not go into reverse as the department prepares for the next round of spending cuts, permanent secretary Martin Donnelly has vowed.

Earlier this year, BIS announced that it had achieved a 50/50 split of men and women in its most senior roles, a ratio that puts it ahead of the wider senior civil service, where 61% of officials are men.

As an unprotected government department, BIS, which is yet to settle with the Treasury, is braced for cuts of between 25% and 40% at next week's Spending Review. 

But Donnelly, the department's most senior official, told Civil Service World that continued austerity would not undermine the measures BIS had prioritised to try and help women take on leadership roles – including flexible working arrangements, job shares and staff support networks for parents and carers.

Read the full Martin Donnelly interview
Sajid Javid makes case for BIS ahead of the Spending Review – but hints at shrinking estate
Post Spending Review webinar with CSW and KPMG

"If people thought that, I would have failed," he said. "It is fundamental to the way we do things here in BIS that our values are the one thing which stay completely the same as we reform, as we modernise, as we upskill, as we become more digital. And the secretary of state is completely with us. We have an effective partnership with ministers around our agenda and around our values."

He added: "People are concerned that somehow the department will leave them behind as pressures mount. It’s our job as leaders to make clear that that is never going to happen, that we improve by building on the values and behaviours that make BIS the department that people want to come and work in, where they do want to go the extra mile, where we don’t take advantage of them, and where we do make sure that team working means we support each other when things get rough."

Donnelly told CSW that the department's emphasis on creating a better working environment for officials had been prompted by the "very difficult change programme" initiated in the last parliament.

"We reduced our core staff by over 22% and we did it quickly to minimise uncertainty," he said. "But it left a terrible legacy of mistrust and concern and worry. 

“Over the years we’ve rebuilt the department, by listening to what people want and need. And we’ve found that to do that requires a form of leadership which has to be very open and personal. I expect my senior team to talk about themselves. I talk about myself, with all of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And that gives everyone else permission to do the same.”

"Smaller number of centres of excellence"

Elsewhere in his CSW interview, Donnelly shed light on the implications of the department's "BIS 2020" review for its national footprint. 

The review, carried out by private sector consultancy McKinsey, was commissioned by Conservative secretary of state Sajid Javid, who took over from Liberal Democrat Vince Cable following the general election.

Javid has made it known that the size of the BIS estate and its nationwide network of 45 partner organisations – which include the Student Loans Company, the Low Pay Commission and the Met Office – are up for review as part of that process.

Pressed on whether the downsizing of BIS hinted at by Javid in a recent appearance before MPs would result in a loss of local expertise, Donnelly said the department's regional presence would endure, albeit in a form more focused on getting "bang for our buck".

"We will be looking at how we can simplify the way we work," he told CSW. "And one of the BIS 2020 challenges for us is to try to ensure that we remove duplication and rationalise on a smaller number of centres of excellence. 

"We’re also going to need a regional network. We have a light-touch regional network at the moment through BIS Local and we can strengthen it when we need to. It works in partnership with local authorities. So I would expect that regional presence to continue, but, over time, for us to seek to really concentrate our expertise in different areas like grant-giving, for example, in centres where we can really get the most bang for our buck."

BIS is one of the government departments still to settle with the Treasury ahead of next week's Spending Review announcement, where chancellor George Osborne will set out plans to cut departmental spending by £20bn.

Osborne announced on Tuesday that the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, HMRC, the Cabinet Office, and the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices had agreed to cut their resource spending by an average of 21% by the end of the decade.

The Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury itself have also agreed to make cuts of around 30% by 2019-20.

Read the full interview with Martin Donnelly here

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