Diversifying the civil service: Permanent Secretary speech

Permanent Secretary Lesley Evans' opening address at BAME Into Leadership Conference 2019.

It is a pleasure and indeed an honour to be here today to open the first Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic Into Leadership Conference to be held here in Scotland and during the one hundredth anniversary year for the FDA.

I’m also delighted to be sharing the agenda with such an impressive list of speakers, including Scottish Government’s very own Uzma Khan, who co-chairs our Race Equality Network. 

This Conference provides us with a timely opportunity to take a moment to recognise achievements – something we don’t do often enough in the Civil Service in my experience. But also to rededicate ourselves to tackling remaining and stubborn challenges. 

So today I am going to – yes – mark progress to date in my organisation, but also explain why I am determined to accelerate the pace on race equality and inclusion in the Scottish Government, and describe what I believe to be the key ingredients for success. 

To mark Black History Month last October, the Scottish Government’s staff Race Equality Network (REN) held its second annual conference. Minority ethnic colleagues shared their insights, experiences, frustrations and constructive ideas about how we should advance race equality. And I shared my own thoughts and ambitions for the Scottish Government and the type of organisation I think it wants and needs to be.  

Most importantly – I shared my frustration. In particular I find myself saying more and more frequently these days: when will we see the first minority ethnic Director General of Scottish Government? Or, indeed, when will we see our first minority ethnic Permanent Secretary in Scotland?

Because quite frankly, I am impatient for change. Minority ethnic people make up 4% of Scotland’s communities and largely perform better academically than white Scottish people, often holding multiple qualifications Yet they are still underrepresented in senior management, and on average, are more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid work. 

This simply isn’t good enough. Don’t get me wrong - I celebrate every small, incremental, step we take in Scottish Government – and the positive changes these bring about. For example, we recruited 150 middle managers in an external campaign last year - our application pool comprised 8% minority ethnic candidates, and the successful group appointed was made up of 7% minority ethnic candidates. 

In 2017, our Graduate Development Programme – a fast-track programme to senior leadership – attracted nearly 12% of applications from minority ethnic candidates. 

Between November 2017 and December 2018, 6% of the 1,200 new starts in Scottish Government who declared, did so as minority ethnic.  

My minority ethnic colleagues feel more positive about inclusion and fair treatment at work. Indeed, the rates of discrimination, bullying and harassment experienced by minority ethnic colleagues have fallen considerably, and are no longer elevated above those of white colleagues. And very importantly, we have seen a considerable drop in the proportion of minority ethnic women who have experienced bullying and harassment.

However the pace of change needs to quicken. Only 2.2% of our workforce identify as minority ethnic. And whilst I’m pleased there is a higher proportion at the most senior levels of the organisation – 3% of our Senior Civil Servants in December 2018 – that equated to 5 people. Just 5. I can count them on the digits of one hand. 

And although figures are falling, minority ethnic women still self-report higher levels of bullying and harassment compared with the overall average. 

These are just some of the reasons we have signed up to Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter: to sharpen our resolve on achieving race equality in Scottish Government. 

I am determined to see this through – and believe me, this is personal. During my life I have had the distinct advantage and benefit of learning, working and living in very diverse communities in cities in England and Scotland. I was living in Toxteth, Liverpool just before the race riots there in July 1981 and moved to Brixton when the rebuilding of relationships with the minority ethnic community was in full flow the same year. I worked for one of the very first local authorities to introduce mandatory unconscious bias training to every single member of staff – from the Chief Exec to the guys who put out the chairs in the public halls. And – very differently but just as important -  I hit newspaper headlines in the 1990s by refusing to allow musical society members to black up in presenting Showboat at the King’s Theatre. 

All different but formative experiences which gave me insight, tilted my cultural axis,  shaped and sharpened my values, and exposed me to the values of others – not always an edifying experience. All this – and my role as a community worker in the 1980s and 1990s – continues to inform, enlighten and galvanise my ambition that the Scottish Government must become more inclusive and more diverse in both thought and culture.

But this isn’t a vanity project - race equality and inclusion is vitally important for the Scottish Government, and indeed, the public sector. The moral case is well-rehearsed. Firstly, access and fairness. Scotland is a rich and diverse tapestry of peoples and cultures and there should be no barriers to talented people building a career in Scottish Government. Secondly, it’s about dignity and equality. Every day we develop and deliver wide-ranging public policy. We need to have a diverse workforce to gain broader insights, increase challenge, engage more fully with all of our stakeholders and ultimately support Ministers better to make decisions that benefit the entire Scottish population.

But for me there’s another unashamedly selfish case – my organisation is after talent. The best. Particularly at times of uncertainty and challenge, we want, and need, the best and brightest to help us innovate, see new pathways and opportunities and tackle inequalities in Scottish society. Diversity of background, and thought, coupled with an inclusive environment where people can flourish, are key factors of strength in our becoming an organisation which is more capable of flex, change and improvement. Ready for the uncertainties and opportunities that lie ahead, and, indeed, those around us right now. 

My belief that diversity brings talent is borne out by the results of the middle manager external recruitment campaign last year. I mentioned earlier the diversity of applicants. But 55% of those applicants passed the assessment centre. Normally you expect that number to be closer to 33%. Moreover, of the minority ethnic candidates who passed the assessment centre, 85% were in the top quartile. It’s a no brainer - if you want the best talent, go diverse. 

But there’s something even more fundamental than recruitment practice here. If we are to make a real and sustainable shift then the old guard, the “aye been” ways of doing things – that must change. 

It’s about access and opportunity. Predicated on fairness and equality yes, but drawing on a deeper understanding of the importance of inclusion and what it takes for people to really thrive in the workplace. To shape and advance their career as they wish and to reach their full potential. 

It’s not only what we do, but how we do it. Some examples.

I mentioned our external recruitment campaign last year. I was absolutely crystal clear with HR colleagues that the exercise would be a failure if it did not also improve our diversity. And I pay tribute here to our Race Equality Network who helped us create new approaches to outreach and selection. We used bespoke assessment panel training, increased diversity of panels (and my particular thanks to HMRC who kindly loaned us 6 members of their race network to join our assessment panels). And applied in-depth diversity data analysis throughout the selection process. As a result, we increased both the application and success rates of diverse candidates. 

And at last summer’s first ever three day Future Leaders conference, aimed at graduates from ethnic minority, disabled and socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, we provided ‘open door’ access to the Scottish Government. We explored what it really feels like to work here, encouraged people to test how committed we are to inclusion, offered the opportunity to develop mentoring relationships with existing Scottish Government staff and provided support with the application process. 

We know their limitations, but we are not shy of using mechanical levers to effect change. So we have set targets on the flow of minority ethnic people into the Senior Civil Service. Our aim is that by 2025, at least 6% of new Senior Civil Servants will identify as minority ethnic. We are taking a long, hard look at our people policies, processes, procedures and systems some of which have been in place for some time - and changing them. 

But - as I always say - culture eats strategy for breakfast. No amount of policy changes, data analysis, targets or initiatives will make a real, sustainable difference if we don’t make sure we get the basics right. 

The fact remains that discrimination is still a feature of our society, and, yes, our workplaces. It shows up in systemic ways – in biased recruitment and progression processes which exclude talented people. It shows up in micro behaviours, or indeed micro aggressions, which can make people feel excluded, undermined and disempowered. 

And it still shows up in more overt ways, too. I welcome Close the Gap’s recent report 'Still not Visible', which shines a light on shocking levels of discrimination, harassment, racial prejudice and/or bias faced by minority ethnic women in the workplace. We cannot and must not tolerate any form of discrimination. And to be clear - the onus is not on minority ethnic colleagues to call these things out. It’s for each of us - policy-makers, decision-maker, line managers, senior leaders ,witnesses and bystanders. Everyone is responsible for taking take action, to challenge and to change. Remember - what you permit you promote.

But quite frankly, calling out and rooting out discrimination is a minimal expectation. This isn’t about compliance – it’s about commitment. And that starts at the top. So I shall continue to challenge and ask questions, not least of myself. What leadership qualities am I role modelling? Whose voices am I hearing? And to the organisation, how aware are we of the overwhelmingly white make-up of most of our decision-making spaces? 

Questions like these were rightly posed to me and my Executive Team colleagues by the Race Equality Network at their event last year. Part of our response was to undertake mutual mentoring with members of the Network. I found my own mutual mentoring relationship to be inspiring, informative and – on occasion – disturbing. That is exactly as it should be. It has spurred me on to raise, question and pursue assumptions and practices in the organisation, both cultural and procedural. And I intend to keep doing this.

I’ve mentioned REN a few times. At its first conference in 2017, REN set an ambition to shift the dial on race equality in Scottish Government. It is doing just this. With strong support from our senior race Champions, the network has shown tremendous leadership in pressing for change, but also being willing to be part of that change. It has required courage and commitment and for that I am very grateful to REN members,  a number of whom are here today. 

Networks are important spaces of coherence, of confidence, of community, of empowerment and of constructive challenge - and a powerful force for good in shifting perceptions and promoting understanding. REN and other Scottish Government networks are, and must remain, a core component of how we are delivering diversity and inclusion in our organisation. For that reason, we are funding a full-time post for REN to focus on the strategic development of the network, and to ensure it plays its business critical role to the full. 

Those of you who have heard me speak before know I like to end on an ask and an offer. 

While the Scottish Government works on corporate systemic change, there are actions each of us can take to support minority ethnic colleagues in their leadership journeys. I mentioned the value I derived from my mutual mentoring relationship and I want to challenge you to do this too. I believe we each have a responsibility to give back and to lift as we climb. So - find someone you respect and admire, and ask them to be a mutual mentor. 

And here’s my offer - I shall continue my own journey of learning but also supporting others to grow. If you are interested in work shadowing or sharing your perspectives and experiences with me or one of my Director Generals, speak to Uzma - as she has done this and lived to tell the tale – and get in touch. 

Enjoy the rest of your day.



Central enquiry unit: ceu@gov.scot

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