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23.08.17

Developing a diverse Civil Service

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

A number of factors are placing increasing strain on the Civil Service and wider public sector. But speaking at the Public Sector Show, Rupert McNeil (pictured), chief people officer at the Cabinet Office, claims that we should also see the opportunities presented by adversity.

The Civil Service is facing some choppy waters ahead. Brexit has presented its workforce with one of the biggest challenges it has ever had to deal with – and it’s having to deliver this reform under ever more trying circumstances of stretched budgets and a public sector pay cap dispute.

A key question that remains then is: how do we make the workforce resilient for this tough period ahead? Rupert McNeil, chief people officer at the Cabinet Office, stated that unlike their private sector counterparts, those in the public sector can often carry out their most innovating work whilst under the most pressure.

“Civil servants take change in their stride, whereas in a commercial environment there’s an assumption that you can buy your way out of problems,” he said. “There’s many ways in which innovation can be seen and driven by constraints that are put on the workforce.

“You have GCHQ in Cheltenham, one of the greatest tech companies in the world – which is part of the government. And coming from DWP and HMRC, the public sector is as good as anything I was used to seeing in banking.”

 

The challenge of retaining talented staff

But as is the case across the public sector, retaining the staff doing this good work is becoming a tricky task. A recent letter sent by the FDA, the union representing public sector managers, revealed that a third of civil servants were looking to leave their posts “as soon as possible”. Central to easing this problem, McNeil went on to say, is putting in place flexible working arrangements that ensure the worker’s sense of purpose is prioritised.

“What we haven’t been good at is making it easy for people to move around the Civil Service and between departments,” he admitted.

“What we’ve found is that mapping out career pathways is key to allowing this to happen.”

Prior to joining the Civil Service in January 2016, McNeil was the HR director at Lloyds Banking Group. And over the past 18 months he reflected that the modern worker’s focus has moved from departmental movement to professional movement. Simply put, staff feel aligned to a professional identity and expertise, be it digital, financial, HR, commercial or operations – and so bosses should allow people to move across departments, whilst still working in a skillset they are comfortable with to get the most out of them.

 

Digital innovation: creating an agile workforce

Another key feature that McNeil believes is central to driving innovation in organisations is being “agile” – not just to changes in the workforce, but also to new digital ways of working.

“What I hope is going to happen is that the cost of innovation is going to drop as digital ways of working – like the development of apps and the ability to make changes to the process – are less intrusive and smaller,” he argued.

This inevitable rise of technology is not something that is going to replace the human side of public sector services. In fact, digital innovations that are coming through will empower both staff and customers to get the most from public services.

“The public sector will be affected in a different way by technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to other industries,” McNeil continued. “In Job Centres, for example, where the work coach navigates a client’s journey to work, technology is empowering staff and making them more effective.

“Given how many jobs in the public sector are related to dealing with human beings and citizens, I think we will see AI and machine learning work even more effectively. The mindset we’re describing is open to the opportunities that technology offers.”

 

The key to an inclusive and diverse work environment

A final important message was on the vital need for public sector workforces to push towards being diverse and inclusive places to work, innovate and prosper.

Few would argue that the public sector has had problems with diversity. For example, in combined authority boardrooms, over 90% of the positions are filled with white men, whilst in councils, a recent report from the Fawcett Society found that since 1997, the gender balance has only improved by 5% in the favour of women (more on page 29).

“We want to move to not just looking at diversity, but looking at inclusion and creating environments in which everyone will be able to thrive,” McNeil emphasised. “Senior leaders in the Civil Service can have more freedom to do good things than their private sector equivalent.”

But he was also quick to point out that bosses also had to be inquisitive and sympathetic to the experiences of their workers to push forward a positive diversity agenda. “Fundamentally, it’s about how we can actually see the problem,” he stated. “We have to get to what is the lived experience and work of people from different backgrounds and ask if they feel respected, heard, so that they can have an impact and fulfil their potential.”

McNeil added that “micro-behaviours”, signals that are given off in our interactions with each other, can be a key part in halting the development of workers. With senior women in the Civil Service, for example, small things are happening at a level of annoyance that make workers feel not as at home as they should.

“One thing I’m keen to do is to show people who chair meetings how they can create inclusive environments. There’s going to be a journey with how we measure this inclusion, but I want to get to the point in 2020 where if I ask you ‘are we the most inclusive employer’ then you could say ‘well, no’ or ‘actually, things are getting better’,” he concluded.

Despite the challenging conditions for working, it seems that for the Civil Service and public sector more generally, the current climate has also stirred up some excitement. Only time will tell if innovation and progress really is driven through financial constraint, but what’s certain is that change has to come soon to ensure the workforce is prepared for anything that is thrown in its direction.

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