'We still fall short': Sedwill pledges more action on inequality in the civil service

Covid-19 and killing of George Floyd have shown up “persistent and painful inequalities” in society, cab sec says


Photo: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Permanent secretaries are to take “personal responsibility” for improving diversity and inclusion in their departments, cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has said – as he admitted that “this is an area where we still fall short of our aspirations”.

Freshly-appointed civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm will act as overall D&I champion, and the civil service is to expand its use of shadow boards, as part of a drive to “accelerate the pace of change” towards a more diverse and inclusive civil service, Sedwill said.

In an internal memo to officials, seen by CSW, Sedwill said that while progress had been made in recent years, there was much work to be done to address systemic inequalities in the civil service.


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He said “persistent and painful inequalities” had become apparent in the disproportionate rates of infection and death among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities during the coronavirus pandemic, and in the killing of George Floyd that has ignited Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

He said addressing discrimination and inequality was a “question of leadership”.

Efforts to make the civil service more diverse have included setting targets for representation at senior civil service level, introducing awards, and nominating perm secs as D&I champions.

A civil service shadow board was set up in 2015 to provide challenge and support to the Civil Service Board by providing views on board papers and leading corporate projects on topics such as developing talent outside London and other areas of reform. It is made up of officials below senior civil service level from different departments.

Individual organisations, including the Government Communication Service, have since introduced shadow boards and Sedwill said the civil service would be expanding the model further, ensuring boards have diverse representation.

“And we will ensure that ethnic minority perspectives are embedded in policy formulation and delivery, including on Covid-19,” he said.

“Our employee networks cannot shoulder the burden alone, This is a question of leadership,” the cab sec added. A number of staff-led networks representing particular groups of civil servants – including the LGBT+ network, the BAME network and the social mobility network – have been formed to support officials directly.

Sedwill said that as D&I champion, Chisholm will take “taking personal responsibility for driving the inclusion and diversity agenda” across government. The COO succeeds former Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government head Dame Melanie Dawes, who left government earlier this year.

In an interview with CSW last month, Chisholm said diversity would be an important plank of his drive to reform the civil service.

“I take my responsibilities as the new COO of the civil service very seriously: that it is a change agenda, not a ‘carry on as we are’ agenda,” he said.

With Chisholm leading that agenda, Sedwill said each perm sec will “take personal responsibility for leading programmes to improve the D&I experience and outcomes both within their departments and the wider public service systems”.

The message comes a week after Sedwill wrote to civil servants urging them to follow strict social-distancing protocols as coronavirus lockdown rules are eased, allowing some of them to return to the workplace.

He acknowledged at the time that it was an “anxious time” for many civil servants, and noted the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.

In yesterday’s message, the cab sec added: “The natural anxiety about the unequal impact of the virus has now been compounded by the grief and anger at the death of George Floyd, as we have seen in scenes from across the United States and here in the United Kingdom of the Black Lives Matter protests.”

He urged officials to put forward ways to tackle the remaining obstacles to equality in the civil service.

“I will continue to work with the public service leadership to move this work forward. But if there are wider areas where I can remove barriers to progress, I want to know, so that we can act,” he said. I hope this message signals my determination to use the momentum from this tragic event to build on the agenda to which we have been long committed and accelerate the pace of change.

“I and my leadership team are absolutely clear that there must be zero tolerance across the public service of any form of racism or discrimination, both among colleagues and in our dealings with the wider public. Discrimination can take many forms, it can be subtle or overt, and requires a range of actions to challenge and uproot,” Sedwill wrote.

“As a white senior leader, I try to understand the lived experience of ethnic minority colleagues and citizens. But, while empathy and understanding are important, as the head of the civil service, my job is also to take action.”

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