Ursula Brennan: cuts needn't undermine civil service diversity if we get flexible working right

Former Ministry of Justice permanent secretary says technology-enabled flexible working can help disabled civil servants progress in their careers, even in an era of prolonged cut-backs

By Jess Bowie

30 Nov 2015

Proper use of mobile technology could help disabled civil servants excel in their careers, even during times of cuts and downsizing, Dame Ursula Brennan has said.

In an interview with Civil Service World to be published in the new year, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice said that while flexible working was not enough on its own to help disabled officials ascend the Whitehall career ladder, it was “a rare example of a new technology going in a direction which will actually help the diversity agenda”.

Asked how, in an unprecedented decade-long period of retrenchment, civil service leaders would make sure that initiatives to accommodate the needs of disabled staff didn’t fall by the wayside, Brennan – who retired from Whitehall this summer – drew on her experiences of cost-cutting at the MoJ.

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“We were conscious that we needed to reduce our estates costs," she said. "Our buildings in central London are very expensive, and you can keep squeezing down the number of square metres that a person is allowed to occupy, but it gets impossible after a while.

“So we decided to turn it round the other way and ask: ‘Why is there is a presumption that you need to be in the office?’ For lots of people, they’re out and about at meetings, visiting people. Senior managers are out and about on visits all the time. And more junior staff: when they’re back in the office, what are they doing? They may be sitting quietly somewhere where they need a quiet space, or they may need to log on to a more reliable signal than they perhaps have at home or elsewhere.

"But a lot of the time they could be working anywhere, if we gave them really workable mobile technology. And that means that people with disabilities, for whom travelling is difficult, are able to adapt their working day."

Brennan said this was particularly true for people suffering from long-term conditions like multiple sclerosis.

“If you’ve got a condition which means that sometimes you really don’t want to be making long journeys and working long days, and you can work from home more easily, then that actually makes life easier for people. So I do genuinely think this is an instance where technology and diversity are going to go hand in hand and make things more flexible,” she said.

For disabled staff based in the office, Brennan said the onus was on senior managers to ensure workplace adjustments were seen as a priority.

“The big thing around adjustments is that departments already have the investment. We’re mostly just not good enough – or we weren’t good enough – at helping people navigate the process. “

A lot of the time, the service is there, we just don’t make it easy for people to access it: there are helplines that are hard to fight your way through, for example.

"So having senior people – people at board level in your department – who can be champions and who, when people come to them and say ‘Look, nobody’s able to get through to the helpline’ or ‘It takes three months to get some kind of adjustment made’ can take up those concerns is a really good way of dealing with that.”

Before her retirement this summer, Brennan spent forty years working in the civil service. She was succeeded at MoJ by Richard Heaton.

On Tuesday Brennan will chair a one-day conference on diversity and inclusion for the Whitehall & Industry Group.

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