New diversity plans for the Civil Service

The Civil Service has just published two major reports on diversity and women as part of a move towards becoming one of the “most female-friendly employers in the country”.

The Talent Action Plan aims to ensure the service is a place where “the most talented people succeed and reach the top positions, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability”.

It was published at the same time as the Women in Whitehall: culture, leadership, talent report, the first of four reports to look at different aspects of the diversity issue which the Talent Action Plan acknowledges cannot be dealt with using a one-size-fits-all approach. Reports on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff; those who declare they are from a minority ethnic background and those who declare a disability will follow.

The Talent Action Plan proposes that all-male shortlists for senior positions and all-male selection panels will only be allowed in exceptional circumstances; that all departments nominate board-level diversity champions; that all Permanent Secretaries and Directors-General mentor one or more junior employees; and that action be taken to provide women with more tailored support before, during and after maternity leave. It also talks about making the Civil Service an “exemplar” employer on shared parental leave when it comes in next year and says it will pay Shared Parental Leave at the same occupational rate as maternity leave across the whole Civil Service.


Women account for 53% of Civil Service employees [up from 48.6% in 1998] and almost 40% of senior appointments, but only a third of the top management posts, with the gender pay gap of 4.9% reflecting this.

Representation across gender, race and disability has increased over the last 15 years, with 9.6% declaring a minority ethnic background [up from 5.7% in 1998] and 8.6% declaring a disability [up from 4.1% in 1998]; and some Civil Service departments are recognised by Stonewall as amongst the most lesbian and gay-friendly workplaces in the UK. Some 8.8% of Fast Streamers are women and 11.6% declare a minority ethnic background. On the Fast Track Apprenticeship programme, 43% are women and 16% declare a minority ethnic background.

However, the Service recognises that it needs to do more, particularly on career progression, and that a target-focused approach has only had limited success because it does not address underlying problems.

To ensure success, the report says co-ordinated action from the centre is needed to bring together good practice in different departments. It recommends strong leadership at all levels which is dedicated to diversity, with the centre holding departmental leaders to account for delivering change. It calls for the publication of a single leadership statement that sets out the behaviours expected of  leaders, who will be trained accordingly. The report says performance will be monitored via 360 degree feedback that is “rigorous, objective, professional and systematic”.

It calls for the creation of board-level diversity champions to drive change. They will be expected to challenge the status quo and represent diversity issues at board level. They will also be able to bid for funds to cover the costs of research into priority problems – particularly where there are concerns over diversity at senior levels.

Permanent secretaries will be given personal responsibility for ensuring “the most talented, irrespective of background, reach the most senior levels of their organisations” and will have to prepare “a clear and proactive plan for sustainable improvement” with their chief executives.

The report also recommends creating an inclusive culture which supports flexible working, making greater use of the expertise of non-executive directors, for instance, as mentors, making diversity and inclusion learning part of any formal induction process for all civil servants, monitoring and acting on best practice and promoting coaching and mentoring.

Maternity leave and career breaks

There is a section on maternity leave and career breaks. The report recommends more tailored support for women before, during and after maternity leave, including the chance to agree a keeping in touch and development plan before they go on leave that identifies the development they need to reach their career goals. The plan would be reviewed and refreshed while they were on leave. Keeping in Touch days could also be used more flexibly, for instance to take forward short-term, strategic projects.

Women who take longer career breaks would be offered a continuing twice-yearly opportunity to discuss their evolving career plans with an HR and talent professional. This would include an assessment of their aspirations, skills and development needs. On return to the Civil Service, they would be matched with a ‘buddy’ from relevant networking groups to help them re-establish connections across their department and the Civil Service more widely. The report also proposes that women be asked to fill in a questionnaire on return from maternity leave on their views of their experience and their department’s management of their maternity leave.

The Talent Action Plan was prepared taking into account the findings of The Women in Whitehall report. This says that, while Civil Service policies are in line with best practice, many people, particularly women, “do not believe that rhetoric matches reality” and that this leads many women, despite being just as ambitious as men, to opt out. It concludes that “organisational performance is being held back by a leadership climate in which some groups of staff are unconsciously discriminated against” and that management of leadership and talent was “something of a lottery rather than a core part of everyone’s job”.

The report states: “In essence, we found that the culture and leadership climate are preventing talented women from progressing into more senior roles. When combined with current pay constraints this means that the talent pool from which leaders can  recruit is significantly smaller than it could be which, in turn, will be constraining performance.”.

It talks about how Senior Civil Service culture is described by many as “a bear pit”, how women feel that there is a lack of role models with whom they can identify and how 100% of the focus group consulted for the report mentioned work life balance as a concern.

The report makes several recommendations, including the communication of a clear vision and clear values for the Top 100, dealing with variable talent management skills, publishing data on gender diversity to drive reform, clarifying accountability for leadership behaviour and developing more positive action initiatives for women.

Next year, the Civil Service plans to publish a revised talent strategy, once the recommendations from the other three reports are known.


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