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Trio of reports criticises Civil Service barriers to diversity

A trio of government commissioned reports have come back criticising the Civil Service on the barriers facing officials from minority groups.

The three separate reports, commissioned by the Cabinet Office last year, highlight concerns among civil servants that Whitehall’s leadership has not done enough to support diversity, particularly at a senior level.

The cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, has promised a “relentless focus” on improving diversity in response.

“There are some very, very big challenges ahead and these reports that we’re publishing today expose that very clearly, and I think it is very important that we don’t hide that away,” he said.

The reports looked into the barriers facing three different groups, those declaring a black, Asian or minority-ethnic background (BME); those declaring a disability or health condition; and those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

Some 191 BME officials at all levels were interviewed for its report, which found that progress had been made since 2010 in increasing BME representation in Whitehall, but the Civil Service is still “falling short in developing and progressing” people from such backgrounds into senior management positions.

Respondents said they did not believe the Civil Service “lives up to its vision of an open, inclusive and fair culture”.

Ethnic Dimension, who conducted the study, said in the report: “A key factor is the lack of sufficient BME representation at senior management level. This is a powerful ‘barometer’ of how well the organisation’s talk matches reality. The consistent view among the staff we interviewed was the importance of ‘looking above them’ for BME role models in sufficient numbers to gauge the potential for career progression.”

The report focusing on those declaring a disability or health condition was similarly critical. The study, conducted by Disability Rights UK, says that while many senior Whitehall leaders have shown a “clear and strong commitment” to diversity, those with disabilities still face “substantial barriers” to promotion.

It points out that 8.8% of civil servants now declare a disability, up from 4.8% but adds that the figures are less encouraging in senior levels where the just 3.4% have made a declaration.

“The senior Civil Service ‘norm’ is still widely perceived to involve supreme flexibility in terms of working hours and location, examplar communication skills and hyper-resilience physically and mentally: disabled civil servants feel that whatever their talents, skills or potential contribution, they are assumed not to be able to deal with the pressures and are therefore passed over for new responsibilities and promotions,” the report says.

The report into LGBT staff says that they still feel "anxious about being able to be themselves at work", and that there are too few role models in the top levels of Whitehall.

"Far too many express anxieties that they are pressured to fit a conventional mould and, if they don't, their professional development will be compromised," the report says. "Some have been told so explicitly."

One participant told the study: "Quite a few people go back into the closet in order to get into the SCS."

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said that the three reports were “sometimes uncomfortable reading”, but added it had been “important” to ensure that officials were able to speak “very directly” about their experiences.

“The thing that comes of it is… that there is this gap between what people say and the progressive policies and lots of enthusiastic work and behaviour, and how people see the behaviour,” he said. “There is that feeling that it isn’t consistent, a feeling that there is a sort of monoculture, that you need to be a certain type of person to succeed.”

Maude wants to see the Civil Service at the forefront of good practice, setting an example in recognising staff achievements regardless of their background.

The Cabinet Office has published a revised version of the government’s Talent Action Plan (TAP) to address the concerns raised.

Some of the proposals in the refreshed Talent Action Plan include:

  • introducing an intensive two year programme to support departments and agencies to implement the Talent Action Plan and fully integrate diversity and inclusion into all their HR processes, led by a new central diversity and inclusion unit, bringing together existing teams across government
  • appointing dedicated diversity and inclusion non-executive directors with a proven track record who will hold the civil service to account on this agenda
  • introducing an ambitious new talent programme – Accelerate – for the senior civil service (SCS) which will raise the visibility and aspiration of diverse talent in the SCS, offering leadership training and development to produce a larger pool of diverse talent
  • moving to a single disability passport for all departments in 2015, to improve the ease with which employees with a disability or health condition can move jobs in the civil service

Maude said: “Our goal is simple: we want the civil service to draw on the widest possible pool of talent. For too long, talented civil servants from under-represented and disadvantaged groups have failed to reach the highest levels. We have now examined the actual barriers they face and this refreshed Talent Action Plan is designed to address them. We should be judged by what we achieve not what we are promising.”

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