The cabinet secretary has promised a “relentless” focus on improving the diversity of the civil service, as he set out his response to a trio of critical reports on the career barriers facing officials from under-represented groups.
The three separate reports, commissioned by 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.
Among the reports’ findings are:
Sir Jeremy said the three reports raised “really worrying” concerns for civil service leaders, as he set out a revised version of the Cabinet Office’s Talent Action Plan (TAP), drawn up last year in response to separate research on gender in Whitehall.
“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,” the cabinet secretary told an audience of civil servants at a Championing Difference summit in London on Thursday. “We’ll never solve this problem if we’re not open about the problem.”
The revised TAP commits the civil service to an “intensive two-year programme” of help for departments and agencies so that they can “fully integrate diversity and inclusion into their business processes”.
According to the Cabinet Office, this will be led by a single cross-government team “run from the heart of the HR function”.
Departments’ implementation of diversity policies will also be scrutinised by non-executive directors “with established track records on diversity”, while the most senior civil servants will be deemed “personally responsible” for tackling discrimination and ensuring their departments promote on merit.
“As long as I’m head of the civil service this will be one of the top priorities and we will relentlessly focus on it, year-in, year-out,” Heywood said.
“But I want the same to be true of all the other permanent secretaries as well. I want each individual permanent secretary to have a clear, evidence-based objective relevant to their department for which they will be held accountable.
“The objectives will be public so there will be public pressure as well as my pressure as line manager. They will be agreed by [Cabinet Office minister] Francis [Maude] and the prime minister, and they will be stretching objectives such that if we meet them consistently over the parliament we’ll have made a big difference to this agenda.”
The Cabinet Office’s plan also sets out a commitment to tackling a “lack of clarity and uniformity” in the data collected by departments and agencies on the representation and career progress of staff from under-represented groups.
It pledges to collate and publish standardised data on diversity through the GOV.UK website, and calls on departments to encourage staff to declare information on disability, sexual identity and ethnicity, in a bid to improve the overall quality of data.
“I think we've refreshed our policies, our policies have improved. But ultimately it comes down to accountability and transparency,” Heywood said, adding: “We're making a rod for our own backs quite deliberately.”
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told civil servants at yesterday’s event that the findings of the three reports made for “sometimes uncomfortable reading”, but said it had been “important” to ensure that officials were able to speak “very directly” about their experiences at work.
“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.”
The civil service should, Maude added “be at the forefront of good practice”, setting an example to the private sector in the way it recognises staff for their achievements regardless of their background.
“We cannot be the best civil service that we can be unless we support people of talent, whatever they look like, whatever their sexuality, whatever their physical disabilities,” he said.
Public sector trade unions gave a mixed reaction to the Cabinet Office proposals. The FDA, which represents senior public sector managers, said it “broadly” backed the revised TAP, but both it and the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union expressed disappointment that unions had not been involved in drawing up the new plan.
“The aims of the Talent Action Plan will only be achieved with collaboration between the government and the unions that represent its employees,” said the FDA's equality officer Roland Zollner.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the reports made for “sobering reading”, and revealed “just how little the civil service has progressed over the years”.
“As well as highlighting the adverse impact of the new and almost universally despised performance management system, they reveal barriers to promotion and stereotypical attitudes remain, and that black, disabled and LGBT workers still find their career paths only go so far,” he added.