“Over the three years before the last election, Labour increased ethnic minority civil service representation by 11%; since 2010 the numbers have fallen by almost 10%,” said Michael Dugher, vice-chair of the Labour party, in a speech to the IPPR this month.
He added that Labour would reverse this trend by setting new targets for black and minority ethnic (BME) and working class candidates’ entry to the fast stream graduate training programme – 18% and 24% respectively – and thereby shake up the current domination of Whitehall by white, middle and upper class elites. He stressed that these pledges, which would form part of Labour’s election manifesto, were necessary not only to improve under-representation but to create future Whitehall leaders who reflect the civil society they serve. But haven’t BME staff (and working class, women, young people, and others) heard similar rhetoric from Labour before?
My findings in May 2009 revealed Labour’s poor accomplishments in creating a diverse workforce. Between 1997 and 2009, its civil service managed to achieve only a 2.8% increase in numbers of black and Asian staff. Over the same decade, the numbers for senior managers remained at 3.5% (the target was 5%). More importantly, the same period and subsequent years have seen the gradual departure of the few who did make it to the top. The key reasons cited to me by those affected were invisible and overt racism in the workplace and a lack of support from the champions (chief officers and politicians) who had actively encouraged their recruitment.
I have recently spoken to several BME civil service middle managers who welcome Drugher’s announcement. But they also feel that the fast stream is only a small pipeline of people accessing middle management at higher executive officer grade, and there is no guarantee that these would make it to senior management. Instead, they would like to see Labour’s commitment to all-women shortlists for parliamentary candidates extended, with the creation of all-black shortlists for the senior civil service. Additionally, they stressed that the piecemeal initiatives to date have squandered the precious resources allocated to improving employment opportunities for BME staff, due to ineffective leadership and a lack of input from those who are supposed to benefit. What is needed is a long-term and comprehensive strategy with the capacity to address the cumulative effects of decades of racial inequality at every level of the civil service.
If Labour is to succeed in its quest to improve diversity in senior management through fast tracking, or any other initiatives for that matter, its first task must be to change the culture in Whitehall to make sure future recruits are not subjected to hostility and differential treatment or racist and discriminatory practices. Mandarins must ensure that they are not recruiting clones of themselves and are supporting freedom in thinking and implementation of ideas.
The recruitment schemes must be supported by a culture of listening, taking advice and accepting dissenting views from a cross-section of the BME civil society, rather than just apparatchiks from Labour’s BME political class, advisers and thinktanks – who are just as remote from the wider BME community as their white counterparts. The thinktanks, some of whose own workforces need to better reflect cultural diversity, must shift from regarding black and Asian people as mere evidence material to treating them as equal partners with robust opportunities to put forward challenging and different perspectives in research and policy development. There is an urgent need for independent research by one or more dedicated institutions and up-to-date data documenting the advancement of BME staff in the public and private sector workforces. This is woefully inadequate at present.
Regardless of who gets into power next year, the urgent need for a thorough overhaul of the “upstairs downstairs” of the civil service remains long overdue.
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