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"Achieving diversity"- 2013 Rainbow Lecture, House of Commons

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Yesterday (10th June) I was privileged to deliver the annual Rainbow Lecture at the House of Commons on diversity and the civil service.  Knowing how important diversity is to civil servants across the country I thought I would post my speech here and encourage you to comment on the issues below.  I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Keith Vaz and his team for giving me the opportunity to speak at the event, it was a real honour.

Good afternoon and many thanks to Keith for his invite to me to speak to you.

I am very aware that I follow in the footsteps of some other very good speakers.

It is not often that I give lectures such as this. Even more than in Local Government, the role of Permanent Secretaries and indeed former Heads of the Civil Service is primarily inward. The external role is for Ministers to take.

Our main appearance in the outside world these days seems to be to appear in front of Keith and his fellow inquisitors at the Select Committees. If Keith doesn’t mind me saying so, this is a much more enjoyable experience! Keith knew what subject was likely to get me to say yes to the invitation rather than no. Because promoting diversity has been a passion of mine for pretty much all my professional career.

As for many, a formative part of my career was working for the Greater London Council, first for Sir Horace Cutler and then for Ken Livingstone. The Ken Livingstone administration in particular came with a strong and active equalities and diversity agenda. It was at that time that the core diversity principles – open and fair recruitment, the importance of actively promoting a representative workforce- became part of my thinking.

At my next job as Director of Finance and then Chief Executive of Hounslow, these principles were reinforced. Supported by a very effective equalities unit, strong support from members and a committed team of Chief Officers, we made real advances in the six years I was there.
The Council workforce was radically changed, with a big increase in the number of BME staff, but the Council’s policies and services were also changed.

One particularly memorable event for me was a conference for BME Councillors that was initiated by Keith. Organised on a shoestring, we brought in a US Congressman and organised a dinner at the House of Commons. The gratitude of those Councillors for recognising their role was truly humbling.

I started with my early experiences to make the point that support for equalities was essentially a matter of belief and conviction.

Put simply, this was the right thing to do. It still is.

However as time has gone on it has become very clear that there is a compelling business as well as moral case for promoting diversity. Promoting diversity has become mainstream.

It is as likely that a company Chief Executive will be championing the benefits of diversity as a politician. A lot of good work has been done to make the business case by academics and others including BIS. However I think the case is best made by taking a practical example.

The Lloyds TSB business case for diversity focuses on four areas:

  • An employer of choice, appealing to the widest possible job market, valued and respected by all staff.
  • Meeting the needs of diverse customers.
  • Complying with anti-discrimination legislation.
  • Promoting a strong corporate reputation and community profile.

This case could pretty much apply to any private or public sector organisation.

The question now is not whether you should promote a more diverse workforce in your organisation but how best to achieve it. It has always been clear to me that greater diversity will not happen fast enough, if at all, if organisations are simply left to their own devices. The organisational and cultural barriers are too great. It needs clear leadership and positive action if real progress is going to be made.

This brings me neatly on to the Civil Service. Many people here will know the civil service. Many people will think they know about it from Yes Minister and The Thick of It!

So it is worth starting with some key facts:

  • The bulk of the 420,000 civil servants we now have are not the Whitehall mandarins of Sir Humphrey fame.
  • Some two thirds of civil servants work in operational service delivery and are based outside the Greater London area.
  • Women make up over half of the workforce. Nearly a quarter of civil servants work part time.
  • Amongst the very wide range of jobs that civil servants do – from passports to plant welfare – the most common defining features are their commitment to public service and the interest they have in their work.

Notwithstanding the recent debates about pay, pensions and terms and conditions, jobs within the civil service are good jobs and important jobs. So ensuring that we have a diverse workforce is doubly important for us. We can and should be an exemplar.

How has the Civil Service fared on diversity? Well the first thing to say is that this is not a new agenda. My predecessor Sir Gus O’Donnell was equally committed and Sir Paul Jenkins has been an enthusiastic champion.

Taken as a whole, there has been some real progress made in the last decade or so:

  • Since 1999, the civil service has increased the percentage of minority ethnic civil servants from 5.6% to 9.3%. We fully intend to increase the percentage to over 10.1% - the current BME percentage in the national workforce.
  • Women make up over a third of the Senior Civil Service, having increased by over 40% in the last decade.
  • We have nearly trebled the percentage of civil servants with a disability since 2001.
  • Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people recognises numerous departments including the Home Office, the Department for Health and the Department for Work and Pensions.
  • Appointments of BME applicants to the fast stream have increased from 3.4% in 1998 to 13% in 2011.

When compared with much of the private sector and many other countries this looks and is a strong story.

However we know that it does not yet go anywhere near far enough:

  • At a senior level only 4% of civil servants are from a BME background.
  • From a high watermark in 2010 of half of permanent secretaries being women and 3 being from a BME background we have fallen back to just 4 departments being run by women and no BME permanent secretaries.
  • The engagement scores for staff with a disability are consistently lower than for other staff.

As well as these challenges, two other concerns have been expressed to me by civil servants:

  • Firstly, is diversity only a policy for the good times? In a period of retrenchment, they fear that we will risk going backwards not forwards.
  • Secondly, given the other priorities for reform set out in the Civil Service Reform plan, does diversity really still feature?

My strong view - I know shared by my senior colleagues – is that a smaller civil service cannot mean a less diverse civil service. And it is not possible to effectively deliver civil service reform without a commitment to greater diversity.

The civil service has many strengths but nevertheless needs to change, not least because the world around us is changing. We will be smaller but also stronger, being more flexible, skilled, and focussed on delivery. Part of being stronger will be being more diverse, fully harnessing the talent that is available to us.

How is this going to happen?

Here is my 8 point plan for action:

  • Visible leadership and clear accountability at the top. Myself, and every permanent secretary needs to communicate their personal commitment to diversity and set clear targets for their department.
  • Positive action at key stages in the career journey, for example promotion to team leader and in to the senior civil service. We have some great mentoring and coaching schemes already in place such as META. We need to retain and build on these.
  • Open recruitment wherever possible. One of the key themes of the civil service reform plan is to become a more open civil service, welcoming people from outside who bring new perspective and insights.
  • Supporting the departmental staff networks. The civil service is fortunate to have some long standing BME staff networks in place. These have struggled of late but are having something of a rebirth. They are a real opportunity to give a voice to BME staff and a chance for personal development.
  • Strong schemes to welcome in young people from diverse backgrounds. I spoke earlier about the Fast Stream. We have recently introduced an apprenticeship scheme for school leavers and our summer diversity internship scheme has been running for several years with great success. I am looking forward to welcoming a student in to my office for six weeks this summer and hoping that it doesn’t put them off the civil service for good!
  • Rigorously tracking the impact of restructuring and taking action to ensure that there is no falling back on diversity. In CLG we supported a mentoring programme run by the staff network. I am sure this contributed to delivering a reduction of a third in our overall staff numbers without adversely impacting on the proportion of BME staff.
  • Significantly strengthening our succession planning and talent management at a senior level so that we don’t see the adverse impact that we had recently when permanent secretaries leave.
  • Visibly championing the success of under-represented sectors of our workforce. I have been a passionate advocate of the Diversity & Equality Awards which I’m looking forward to again this autumn.

It is important to say here that we don’t have a monopoly of wisdom on this. There will be new and better ideas for action from the private and public sector that we should embrace. But for now, I think if we wholeheartedly commit to delivering this plan, we can and will make a positive impact.

Keith, I hope I have conveyed to you that the passion I had for greater diversity when we met over 20 years ago is still as strong as ever.

The civil service has made great strides on diversity but needs to go further. I and my senior colleagues in the civil service are very determined that we move forward not backward during this very challenging period of change.

Thank you.

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