UK launches drive to boost diversity in top posts

By on 20/10/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Sir Jeremy Heywood at the Civil Service Diversity & Equality Awards (Image courtesy: Cabinet Office/Flickr / cropped / Under CC).

The UK civil service is planning to launch a new diversity programme to boost the number of ethnic minority staff in its most senior grades.

The move is the centrepiece of the government’s long-awaited Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, which was announced on Monday in a blog post by head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood.

The strategy, which also commits the government to increasing the number of disabled staff in top posts by ramping up an existing programme, will track progress by monitoring the flow of both types of staff up the grades into the senior civil service (SCS) from April 2018.

In his blog, Sir Jeremy said: “Improving diversity and inclusion is one of my top priorities as head of the civil service. As an organisation, we have the ambitious aim of making the civil service the UK’s most inclusive employer by 2020.

“The launch of the new diversity and inclusion strategy sets out work we will complete to support diversity and make each and every work environment across the civil service more inclusive.”

Women making fastest progress

Over recent years, the civil service has made progress on gender diversity, with women making up 41.7% of senior civil servants today – up by 6.5 percentage points on 2010 – compared to their representation across the civil service of a little over 50%. Global Government Forum’s Women Leaders Index recently placed the UK fourth out of the OECD nations for the proportion of women amongst its senior civil servants.

But only 4.6% of the senior civil service are from ethnic minority backgrounds – a rise of just 0.4 points since 2010 – in a workforce that is 11.2% ethnic minority. Just 3.4% of top officials are disabled, with no change over the past seven years.

Under the strategy the government will set up a ‘Diverse Leadership Task Force’, reporting directly to Sir Jeremy, to spearhead the acceleration of ethnic minority and disabled people into senior posts. As well as members of the Civil Service Commission – which overseas the appointments system at senior levels – it will include employers and diversity experts.

A new civil service-wide target for representation of ethnic minority and disabled staff will be set for use in the monitoring exercise, and the performance of individual departments and agencies will be published on a regularly updated ‘data dashboard’.

Measuring inclusion

Meanwhile, in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a new framework for the measurement of inclusive behaviour will be drawn up for use across the civil service in assessing performance.

And quality standards for inclusive leadership will be embedded in performance measures for all civil service managers and leaders and built into career pathways, selection procedures and performance management.

The strategy also commits the service to benchmarking diversity in employees’ socio-economic background by 2020, and to completing a review of gender identity monitoring – helping managers to understand the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) staff.

The service cannot currently assess the representation of LGBTI groups within its workforce because too few staff record their sexual orientation on the HR system, the report states.

Union offers support

The FDA union, which represents civil service leaders and managers, welcomed the service’s commitment to charting the progress of black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME) and disabled civil servants throughout their careers, but stressed that there is much more to do.

FDA equality and diversity officer Zohra Francis said: “Coupled with greater transparency in the data, this innovative move should help to provide a more meaningful and measurable way of tracking whether departments are truly reflective of the people they serve.

“All departments should heed the plan’s commitment to identifying and supporting talented staff, regardless of their background.”

The FDA stands ready to work with departments to identify and tackle the barriers faced by under-represented staff, including “divisive performance management systems which can stifle the very talent that the public sector should be nurturing”.

“We look forward to seeing a step change in the way the civil service approaches inclusion, and we will be working with our diversity networks and growing BAME membership to hold departments to account as they put this new plan into action.”

Chequered history

The UK civil service made rapid progress on diversity amongst senior officials under former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell and the Labour government unseated in 2010. But under the 2010-15 coalition government, progress stalled on ethnic minorities as political priorities changed and job cuts blocked the progress of talented managers into the senior civil service.

Since the departure of former Cabinet Office minister Francis (now Lord) Maude, Sir Jeremy Heywood has acted to give the agenda new momentum – and to introduce a set of reforms designed to improve social mobility.

Sir Jeremy’s blog, which calls on every civil servant “to take at least one action to help your department or organisation become more inclusive” and suggests six ways to help build an inclusive working environment, can be viewed at

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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