26 July 2012

One of Gus O’Donnell’s favourite claims is that under his watch women occupied half of permanent secretary positions. Recent changes suggest that may mark a high point.

Gus’s favourite statistic never bore that much scrutiny – in reality there were many more men with the rank of permanent secretary who did not “count” – whether the proliferation of permanent secretaries at the centre or ambassadors with permanent secretary rank. But at one point, some time in early 2011, it was possible to claim that half of the people in charge of government departments were women – and that marked a real change with what had gone before.

But that trend is now reversing. As the table below shows, the last lap of Gus’s reign saw half of new permanent secretary appointments go to women. They took on some of the big spending beasts – not least Ministry of Defence and Health.

But then there was regime change at the top. Despite David Cameron’s early promises, no woman or ethnic minority was deemed to be up to the position of cabinet secretary or head of the home civil service and Gus was replaced by a duumvirate. Since they have been in charge, there have been two promotions to permanent secretary – Philip Rutnam to Transport and Christopher Wormald to Education – and a sideways move with the early transfer of Ursula Brennan from Defence to Justice. The only ethnic minority permanent secretary, Suma Chakrabarti, has also moved on to head up the European Bank of reconstruction and Development. The early retirement of Gill Morgan and last week’s decision by Moira Wallace to stand down as head of DECC in October risks leaving the top of the civil service” paler and maler” than it has been for some time.

Whether that happens will depend on who gets appointed to the outstanding vacancies – at Defence, in the Cabinet Office and at DECC.

One of the criticisms of Gus’s changes was that the progress of women at the top was not so well reflected lower down. Whether people decide to enter and stay in the pipeline will depend on signals from the top. So the new leadership of the Civil Service will not only need to be seen to be championing the cause of people beyond the usual stereotypes to make it to the top of the civil service – but to support them and help them succeed when they get there.

The other point to note is that only two permanent secretaries are still doing the same jobs as when David Cameron entered No.10. The two supreme survivors are the man in charge of the Olympics – and the one in charge of the economy.

Civil service senior appointments


Are you suggesting an emerging anti-woman bias, or the end of a pro-woman bias in top appointments? Isn't the bigger question: why focus on gender balance? What about meritocracy? What about more interesting (and useful) dimensions of diversity? Most of the men and women in the table have lived gilded lives and ascended through the well-trodden routes that predict for top civil service appointments. In that sense the men and women are more similar than they are different. Within each gender there are bigger personality differences than similarities.

What about focussing on gender-blind human characteristics or backgrounds that are excessively absent or excessively present around the Permanent Secretaries' table? For example, Alan Milburn's 2009 report, 'Fair Access to the Professions' stated that 45% of 'top civil servants' were educated in independent schools - compared to 7% in the general population. How many scientists in the top team? How many are digitally savvy? How many understand large scale IT projects? How many with careers or experience outside Whitehall or London - isn't Sir Bob Kerslake's appointment welcome for that? How much private sector experience? How many have humble origins?

If one accepts the implicit criticisms in the 'What needs to change' sections of the civil service reform plan, what are the missing behaviours and capabilities in the civil service and how well are these represented amongst the current permanent secretaries?

Diversity really does matter - but only the narrowest view of diversity focusses on physical characteristics.

Dear Michael -- very good points.

Not obsessed with gender - but as a woman who worked in the civil service for a long time, when it never seemed to be the right time to put women in top jobs, there did seem to be a change to widen the field.

But abolsutely agree that that was just a start -- and that MUCH more needs to be done to diversify the top of the civil service (and political leadership as well) on the other dimensions you mention. Subsitituting Oxbridge woman for Oxbridge man is probably the easy part.

But what this does show is that just reaching a (self-set) milestone is not enough if it is there is no follow through and efforts are not made to ensure those who are appointed succeed. And that will be even more important as other unconventional appointments are made.

A couple of points:

The final paragraph - quite how fast (and how unpermanent) the Whitehall merry-go-round is. Did it ever used to be this fast? I'm sure a perm sec residency used to be for several years or am I looking back on the past optimistically?

What's the male/female balance at DG level? Its great that there is, or maybe was, close to equality at Perm Sec level, but if that was managed by diminishing the pool of female DG's then inevitably (whilst most new Perm Sec's come from the DG pool) until that pool is refreshed it may be a case of one step backward for every two steps forward. Its always seemed that the recruitment pool for Perm Secs contains a harsher anti-female bias than those actually appointed (this point is probably just agreeing with your response to Michael Davies, that follow through is as important as implementation of a target)

Dear Jill

I have just heard your eloquent, logical and very practical framing of this issue on radio 4. It was such a relief to hear this issue being spoken out loud. As someone who left the civil service as a 30 something 20 years and subsequently worked on equality and diversity in local government I agreed 100% with your argumentation. The suggestion that this sort of change happens "naturally" without a clear and conscious intention for change and without a sharp set of practical instruments/tools is nonsense. I am pessimistic about the future and think that a pre 2007 situation will be with before very long. The losses are immense on every level and it will be harder for the civil service to attract ambitious young women. That said Bob Kerslake has shown good leadership on equality and diversity in the past and may be encouraged to do so again. I hope and that and the institute will continue to speak forcefully on this.