Richard Heaton CB
Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office and First Parliamentary Counsel and Race Champion for the Civil Service
I am looking forward to the Race for Opportunity dinner next week, and to meeting sponsors, stars, role models and unsung heroes from a whole range of backgrounds and sectors. I’ve been to the event once before when I was at DWP. It was a great evening: entertaining and inspiring.
This year, I’m going as the race equality champion for the civil service – which is a role I’m proud to have taken on. It’s also one that makes me feel a little nervous and a little humble. And it’s prompted me to try and set out a personal account of why inclusiveness, diversity and equality are important to me and why I think they’re important to the civil service. (We are always changing our language, aren’t we? Although those three words carry different emphases, for me they convey a pretty constant message.)
I joined the civil service in 1991, as a refugee from the independent bar. For all sorts of reasons, the bar didn’t suit me. One reason, I think, was the uniformity. You were expected to dress the same, speak the same, and walk round the garden anti-clockwise after lunch each day. I suppose I’m from a fairly privileged background, but I found that very frustrating.
It may seem an unlikely claim, but the Home Office was in almost every respect a different – visibly different – place than where I had been working in Temple, EC4. You sensed that in the canteen and in every meeting. Obviously there were fewer lawyers. But as well as that, there were fewer dark suits, more women (in particular, more women over 50), a wider range of regional and non-RP accents, many more black and Asian people, and even a few obviously gay men and women. That made conversations in the office richer, and I’ve no doubt it meant advice going to the Home Secretary was better than it would have been had the organisation been more uniform. It certainly made me more relaxed and confident.
“ A workforce that lacks diversity is probably not an effective one and quite possibly not a happy one either ”
So my starting point is that a workforce that lacks diversity is probably not an effective one and quite possibly not a happy one either.
I don’t mean to imply that the Home Office had diversity sorted out in 1991, or that the civil service has cracked it in 2014. Of course we haven’t. On some indicators, we have a broader mix of people than ever. Our numbers of BME staff overall, for example, now equal the proportion in the population. Our graduate programmes take on three times more BME recruits than 15 years ago.
But my impression – we don’t have much data on this – is that there remain some communities and social backgrounds from which very few civil servants emerge. In each of those groups, there will be talented people who would make great public servants. So we’re missing out. That’s why schools visits and other outreach events should be a priority for us.
And when it comes to retention and promotion, I’m afraid there’s a greater cause for concern. We have a slightly smaller proportion of minority ethnic senior civil servants than we did two years ago. And there’s some data which seems to suggest that fast-streamers from minority ethnic backgrounds are less inclined to think they had good quality postings than their peers; and there’s evidence that are less good at retaining BME talent than talent generally.
So, we need to improve. Which is why the talent action plan we published last week is so important. It doesn’t have targets, and I know some are disappointed by that omission. If we can develop some targets or other measures that really work and which challenge us, we’ll include them in a later edition. But there’s plenty to be getting on with – training in recognising and countering unconscious bias; backing the best talent programmes; improving our evidence base.
And this is something every civil service leader must get involved in and where we can all make a genuine difference – by encouraging talent, by mentoring colleagues, by challenging cliques and lazy “who you know” promotions, and by going out of our way to promote inclusion.
If you’re going to the dinner, I’ll see you next week!