Guest blog: civil service reform – a step backwards for women?

3 September 2012

David Cameron has a 'woman problem' – in the Cabinet and with voters.  Will his civil service reform plan help or hinder the cause of a more diverse civil service?

Good organisations adapt to the changing circumstances they operate in. That’s true of the UK Civil Service where I worked between 1996 and 2011. During my time in government, I can’t remember a single year where I wasn’t affected by one change programme or another.

So, when Francis Maude published the Civil Service Reform Plan in June of this year, there wasn’t actually that much in it that I found new or controversial. I accept the argument for a smaller and more efficient service and I certainly welcome a focus on better performance management. For too long a significant number of civil servants have been able to coast their way to retirement blocking opportunities for more talented colleagues. Where the plan does disappoint me, however, is in its failure to use reform as an opportunity to improve diversity within the Civil Service and, in particular, to ensure that female talent is supported as the changes are brought it.

Until recently, the Civil Service had a relatively good story to tell on gender equality. When I left in January 2012, over half of all civil servants were women – including around a third of senior grades – and female permanent secretaries were in charge of many of the major departments, including the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and the Welsh Government. Under former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, improving diversity was a corporate priority and departmental targets were underpinned with a range of initiatives to drive real change. Senior level champions, mentoring schemes and targeted workforce programmes all helped to ensure that the gender agenda was promoted and scrutinised in equal measure. Although there was still a way to go (we were far from reaching equality even when I left), it felt at least as if the Civil Service meant business when it came to raising women’s aspirations and improving opportunities. Importantly, we had strong role models at the top. Women like Helen Ghosh and Minouche Shafik showed female civil servants like me that you could reach the highest levels without completely sacrificing a family life or your own femininity.

Unfortunately, much of this progress now seems to be unravelling. When Gus retired in December of 2011 his role was split into three new positions but not one of these was awarded to a woman. We’ve had a steady exit of female permanent secretaries since the beginning of this year and to date, their replacements have been white men. Only time will tell whether this is a short-lived blip or a longer-term trend but from my conversations with female friends and colleagues who are still in the Civil Service I can say the damage is already being done – it no longer feels like an organisation in which women can reach, and succeed in, the most important posts.

None of these concerns are insurmountable and the reform agenda could still be helpful if the correct priority is given to diversity considerations. As the changes are brought in, ministers and officials will want to ensure that the best people are retained and developed. Talent is not gender specific so good women must get an equal shot at the new opportunities that will be created. There are a host of things that departments can do to facilitate this – they can offer more, meaty part-time roles at all levels, create job-share possibilities in senior as well as junior positions and make flexible working the default position for all of their staff and not the exception. Above all else, the Civil Service must continue in its relentless focus on diversity because progress that took so much time and effort to achieve can, as we have already started to see, be lost so quickly. The reform agenda should aid this, not distract from it.

I worry, however, that the Government will miss this trick. The reform plan as it stands pays no attention to gender or diversity more widely. Most recently, Francis Maude has said that he would like ministers to have more of a direct say in the appointment of their senior officials. The possibility of this leading to a politicisation of the UK Civil Service has rung alarm bells amongst many commentators but there is also a worrying diversity dimension as well. We currently have a cabinet that is ‘maler and paler’ than its predecessors – indeed one of the things female civil servants tell me they particularly dislike at the moment is the sense of an ‘old boys network’ presiding over Whitehall. Given the chance to choose their senior officials, the risk is that these ministers will appoint in their own image and that, I’m sorry to say, will not bode well for a more diverse civil service.

Further information

Siobhan joined the Civil Service as a European fastreamer in 1996. She worked on transport, environment and local government policies before moving to the Cabinet Office where she headed Civil Service Reform and established the annual Civil Service Awards and Civil Service Live events. Siobhan moved to the Department of Health in 2009 where she was responsible for corporate governance until resigning in January 2012 to run as an independent candidate in the Mayor of London election. In 2009 Siobhan curated an exhibition on the history of women in the Civil Service and the following year she founded Tabelle, a network for women working in and with the public sector.

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One Response

  1. David Gillon on 3 September 2012 at 4:27 pm

    I suspect that every point made here with respect to female inclusion also applies to disability inclusion, and is worsened by increasing restrictions in the Access to Work system. And the maler, paler factor is likely to have a similarly chilling effect on the ability of disabled people to progress. Worse, there’s likely to be a paucity of role-models at higher level, both to inspire, and to trailblaze and to spread understanding of disability and how it both impacts working life and can be worked around. These were lacks I felt particularly strongly during my own career as a disabled person in the engineering industry; having to blaze your own trail and fight misunderstanding and mistrust at every step can be physically and mentally exhausting before you even start in on the job itself.

    And that perhaps explains why, when I read government documents relevant to disability, I am struck by the complete lack of understanding of disability.

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