Up to half of departments ‘not galvanised in diversity drive’, race champion says

Civil Service Commission event also hears how MHCLG used secondments to help boost diversity

Photo: Adobe Stock

By Richard Johnstone

30 Oct 2019

The civil service’s race equality champion has said that as many as half of departments are not "galvanised" in the government’s diversity drive for officials.

Speaking at a Civil Service Commission event last week on improving diversity in Senior Civil Service recruitment, Richard Heaton, who is also the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, said targets had been effective in improving diversity across government.

The civil service has targets to increase the flow of ethnic minority and disabled staff into senior roles, based on three-year rolling percentages. In the period from 2017-20, the target is for 8.6% of new recruits into the civil serivce to be from ethnic minorities, rising to 9.5% in 2018-21 and 10.8% in 2019-2022, up to 13.2% in 2022-25.

Each department has its own target, and performance is monitored on a quarterly basis,


The latest figures show the percentage of civil servants from an ethnic minority background has increased from 8.9% in 2009 to 12.7% in 2019. However, civil servants from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background are less well represented at senior grades than in junior grades. Just 6% at SCS were BME, up from under 5% earlier in the decade.

Heaton said the targets had provided a focus for action for most departments. “Targets are a bit controversial in Whitehall but I’m very clearly of the view that they are a good thing. It has galvanised me as the perm sec in my department. I care about the score, I care about whether the data is inadequate, and I push that down the line.”

He said that the increase in SCS diversity was “a slow-burn good news story”.

“It is not the numbers we need, but 6% – and it will shortly be 6.2% – BME in the Senior Civil Service is a lot better than it was four or five years ago. So the targets have really helped.”

However, he acknowledged that progress was not uniform across government.

“If I’m honest, I think probably half to two-thirds of departments are galvanised, and the rest aren’t, so it is a mixed picture. Some departments, for all sorts of cultural reasons, are either oblivious to this or get away without doing much on this and don’t feel the pressure.”

He declined to name what he called “recalcitrant” departments but said that as race champion he had two ways to encourage them to take more action.

“I don’t have any levers, but and I have two ways of helping to encouraging them,” he said.

“One is going with the local staff network to their top board and doing a session [where] I’m giving them licence to say it as it is in their department. So that is one way.

“The other is by getting departments to come to us, and I hold regular sessions with the civil service race champions from departments round the table. We get one department at a time to come to us and talk us through what they are doing and what the numbers look like, and you get cross-challenge and suggestion from the community.

“So those are two ways, but I don’t have any levers, I don’t have any direct control, I don’t have any mandate. It is about peer support of senior people encouraging each other and – a really crucial thing – giving the network the licence to call it out.”

Need for challenge

Also speaking at the event, civil service commissioner Joe Montgomery, a former senior civil servant in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said the civil service was "probably as diverse now as it was" when he left in 2011.

“It doesn’t feel as though we have shot ahead... It feels like there is quite a lot of progress we can make, but I sense that we will need search companies to manifestly grab a hold of this issue and provide some leadership, and some challenge for us, in order for us to get where we need to be.”

Fellow commissioner Natalie Campbell, who leads for the commission on diversity, agreed that action was needed by recruiters, who were on the recruitment framework used for SCS roles.

“I do think there is room for firms to be more challenging,” she said, adding the commission pays around £16m to recruitment firms annually. “I fully acknowledge that you’re not charities, you are businesses, and the business that you are ultimately working in at the moment is saying this is what we need. And if we don’t have an active dialogue on this then we are just going to go around in circles.”

Secondment successes

The event also heard from Joanna Abeyie, founder of search firm Hyden Talent, who had helped launch a secondment scheme with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to improve candidate diversity.

“We found a route in through secondments, that were being used quite heavily. I liaised with the department and we came up with a couple of days that would happen throughout the year to introduce people who would be brilliant and capable talent that could go in on secondments.”

This worked in MHCLG because local authorities were happy to second staff who would then return, but it also opened up a pipeline for secondees to be developed “if opportunities do come up further down the line”.

Abeyie said the scheme highlighted the need for departments to clearly signal that they are open to candidates from minority backgrounds.

“We had a large number of people, who came from 11 different local authorities, who said that ‘we didn’t even think that that department would be interested in us’,” she said.

“When I relayed that to the people I was speaking to at the department, they were mortified that there was this image that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds would never have thought about a role, even as a secondment. And it took a lot of reassurance, not just from the department but from myself, that this was a genuine opportunity. It meant that, even prior to some of the sessions that we ran in the department, I was having to run sessions almost as an assurance that we cared and that it was a genuine route in.”

‘Sell’ the service

MHCLG perm sec Melanie Dawes, who is the civil service diversity and inclusion champion and chairs the civil service people board, told the event there was a “very strong aspiration” for diversity and inclusion”.

“It is about increasing representation from under-represented backgrounds, but it is also about how it is to work in the civil service, what the behaviours are like and how it feels,” she said.

She said looking the most recent three-year rolling targets, it was apparent that “some departments are a bit behind, some departments are a bit ahead, but everyone is massively improving their flow rates on those measures as a result of the efforts that have gone in.”

She said there was a need for a “much bigger sell” of the civil service to attract people from diverse backgrounds.

“We want more people from minority ethnic backgrounds, and particularly with our London footprint and our policymaking, we have a big gap to fill there, but we also want people from other sectors.”

MHCLG has had success “on the back of going out and talking to people and engaging them, otherwise they don’t know you’re interested”, she added.

“We had nearly 30% of our recruitment to the Senior Civil Service in 2017 were from minority-ethnic backgrounds, which is fantastic. We then had to go out and find new pipelines, and we’re continuing to do fine, but it’s challenging. You are constantly losing people, attracting new people, and trying to keep those numbers moving.”

This requires departments to constantly check their senior recruitment and retention pipelines, Dawes said. “[MHCLG is] constantly looking for people we could be talking to from local government or housing – and all departments have these commercial sectors that have a strong synergy with their work – and persuading people, given that there is usually a pay barrier, particularly for more senior roles, that it is actually somewhere you will be welcomed and be able to thrive.

She added: "It is about attraction, it is about brand, it is about recruitment, it is about one-to-one engagement with individuals, it is about all the talent programmes, it is about all the HR processes. You have to be constantly looking, and that is what we are trying to do. It is a very big and meaningful commitment from us now.”

Read the most recent articles written by Richard Johnstone - Building the future: Steven Boyd on making government property work for the civil service

Share this page