Ethnicity in the civil service

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Why does ethnic diversity in the civil service matter?

A balanced civil service, in terms of ethnicity, gender or disability, is not only a matter of basic fairness but is also key to the effective operation of government. According to the 2017 Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, “When people from diverse backgrounds are involved in creating the public services we all rely on, we get better services that work for everyone.” This strategy outlines a number of steps that could be taken to ensure that the civil service is “the most inclusive employer in the UK”.

A diversity profile in senior grades that matches that of the wider workforce also indicates how well the civil service retains and utilises the talent in its workforce.

There has been progress. But Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Justice since 2015 (and the civil service’s ‘Race Champion’ since 2014), recognises that this has been "patchy" and that more needs to be done to achieve a truly diverse civil service. At the very top levels, there are no "visibly minority ethnic" permanent secretaries running departments.

What is the ethnicity balance of the civil service?

12% of civil servants who declare their ethnicity are black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME). This has increased from 4% in 1988, but is still below the proportion of the whole UK population of 14%, as declared in the 2011 Census.  

How does this vary by grade?

The representation of BAME staff has improved at each grade since 2010.

The second most junior grade, executive officer (EO), has the highest proportion of BAME civil servants at 13.9% – very slightly below the 2011 census figure of 14%.

The senior civil service has the lowest percentage of employees identifying as BAME – 7.8%. However, this is a record high and shows some improvement after progress stalled in recent years.

A lot of the data on diversity characteristics is simply missing, especially for socio-economic background, where previously there were no attempts to publish the data. However, the Cabinet Office has started to collect this data, and we hope this will soon be available.

Data on ethnicity is not recorded or declared for a quarter of civil servants – this is up slightly from 22% in 2010.

There are valid reasons why civil servants may choose not to declare their ethnicity. But for the civil service to know whether it is reaching the goal of being “the most inclusive employer in the UK”, it must obviously collect and publish better data on ethnicity. Without a clear picture of the ethnic balance in each area of the civil service, it will be much harder to determine the root causes preventing BAME staff from reaching more senior positions.

How does ethnicity vary by department?

For all departments, the proportion of BAME civil servants (where known) was lower in the SCS than for the department as a whole in 2018. In all but three departments, less than 9% of the SCS was made up of BAME employees – the clear outlier being DH, with 20.4% of its top grade comprising BAME civil servants.

In most departments, as across the whole civil service, the grade with the worst ethnicity balance was the most senior. The only departments for which this was not the case were DHSC, DWP, BEIS and MoJ.

However, the reporting rate for ethnicity varies significantly between departments. Two of the newest departments, DExEU and DIT, had the lowest reporting rates on the ethnicity of their civil servants at 42% and 36% respectively. Some long-established departments also had poor reporting rates, including the Cabinet Office – where the ethnicity of 49% of the workforce was not reported – and DfE, where 36% was not reported.

Has the ethnicity balance improved on a departmental level?

Every department, except HO, had a higher percentage of BAME civil servants in 2018 than in 2010, with HMT having the largest increase of 5.8 percentage points. Despite HO’s ethnicity balance worsening between 2010 and 2018, it was still the most balanced department: 23.5% of HO civil servants identified as BAME.

However, this increase has not been uniform across the years 2010 to 2018. Two departments had a lower proportion of minority ethnic employees in 2018 than in 2017: Defra and MoJ.

MoD still had the worst ethnicity balance in 2018, with only 4.79% of the department identified as BAME civil servants.

In the SCS some departments improved, such as DHSC and DfE, while others did not. DCMS had the largest fall in the percentage of BAME senior civil servants between 2010 and 2018 with a decrease of 7.5 percentage points. The Home Office had the largest difference (16.5 percentage points) between BAME representation in the whole department and the SCS in 2018.

How does civil service morale vary by ethnicity?

For almost all themes of the Civil Service People Survey, white men are the most dissatisfied. The exceptions to this are ‘inclusion and fair treatment’ and ‘my team’, where BAME women are most dissatisfied.

Generally, the engagement scores of BAME men and women are closer to each other than the scores of white men and women. The largest difference between the BAME and white scores in on the question ‘leadership and managing change’. Both BAME and white civil servants are most unhappy with ‘pay and benefits’ – but satisfied with ‘my team’ and ‘organisational objectives and purpose’.

What is being done to improve the ethnicity balance?

A number of initiatives aim to improve the ethnic diversity in the civil service:

Although these are important initiatives in improving the ethnic diversity of the civil service, more needs to be done – especially the better collection and reporting of ethnicity data. Ultimately, Government needs to be proactive in achieving its targets.


With the exception of the Civil Service People Survey data (final chart), all of the data above comes from Office for National Statistics (ONS) Annual Civil Service Employment Survey (ACSES), but the departmental-level data is based on unrounded versions kindly provided by the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office has a narrower definition of the senior civil service: the ONS reports as “senior civil service” certain roles – such as health professionals, military personnel and senior diplomats – which the Cabinet Office does not consider to be part of the actual senior civil service.

Update date: 
Wednesday, May 1, 2019