What makes a great place to work: Permanent Secretary speech

Speech on the importance of inclusion and diversity, delivered at the Civil Service Live annual conference.

It’s almost nineteen years ago since I joined the Civil Service as part of the first, externally advertised intake of the Senior Civil Service in Scotland. I was reminded by a colleague last week that not only was I not invited to the pub after work (an entirely male affair), but it was suggested I should improve officials’ relationships with one of our Ministers by talking to her about lipstick… 

Hardly surprising perhaps that I remain focused on, and ambitious and impatient for, an accelerated pace of inclusion and diversity in the Scottish Government, across the Civil Service – indeed – across the public sector. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have witnessed improvement. And this session provides an opportunity to recognise our achievements – something we in the Civil Service don’t do often enough in my experience. But I hope today also encourages us to rededicate ourselves to tackling the challenges which undoubtedly remain. And to share personal experience. Because, believe me, inclusion and diversity is personal.

Of course, the moral case is well-rehearsed.

Scotland and the UK is a rich and diverse tapestry of peoples and cultures – there should be no barriers to talented people building a career within the Civil Service.

Every day we develop and deliver wide-ranging public policy. We need 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 population.

And there is the current context. We operate in a VUCA world – one which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It demands we understand and utilise diverse perspectives, be agile and supple when directions or circumstances change and work in a collaborative working style.

So, moral case made. But I am here today because I care.   

Like many of you, I have experienced and witnessed discrimination. Learning, working and living in diverse communities in both Scotland and England. Living in Liverpool just before the race riots in 1981 and in Brixton just after the riots there. Working for one of the first local authorities to introduce mandatory unconscious bias training to every single member of staff. My role as a community worker in the 1980s and 1990s. And as a working mother. Being asked at a job interview what my husband thought about my applying for the post. And the confused and surprised looks on the faces of another interview panel when Leslie turns out to be a woman… All distinct, different and influential 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. And this experience continues to inform, enlighten and galvanise my ambition that the Civil Service must continue to become more inclusive and more diverse in both thought and culture.

As the first female Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government it’s not lost on me that my office at St Andrews House is on the site of a prison once used to imprison suffragettes. Since I took on this role, I have been leading my organisation to be more open, capable and responsive.  

I realised very early on that we need to become a more diverse and inclusive organisation if we are to succeed so that we do a great job for Scottish Ministers and the people of Scotland. So that everyone who works for the Scottish Government can thrive and be successful. And – crucially – so that as an organisation we actually reflect all the communities we serve – channelling their experience and perspectives.  

For me there’s also 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 opportunities, and tackle inequalities in society. Diversity of background, and thought, coupled with an inclusive environment where people can flourish, are key factors in our becoming an organization more capable of flex, change and improvement.

So what are we doing in the Scottish Government? Let me quickly share three initiatives. 

Firstly, we are focussing on intersectionality. As American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” We are paying particular attention to the entire employee life cycle from recruitment right through to retirement focusing on staff from traditionally marginalised groups. Our energetic and vital employee networks are critical elements in ensuring that we identify and remove as many visible and invisible barriers as possible.  

Secondly – leadership. I have challenged all of my Executive Team to become senior allies for specific diversity groups and networks. And we have spent the past year in mutual mentoring relationships with colleagues from our Race Equality Network, understanding better the experience of colleagues from diverse communities and carrying that into our leadership roles. We are looking at a similar experience for disabled colleagues. And I have also asked all my senior team to read and respond to Caroline Criado Perez’s book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, on the gender data gap. 

And we have introduced a Senior Civil Service Diversity Challenge to every Scottish Government Director and Deputy Director. This challenges them to get under the skin of and to further understand the diversity and inclusion issues in their areas, engaging directly with their teams, and hearing the experience of those colleagues with diverse characteristics, without judgement or resorting to auto-defence. And to use all that information and data to set their own testing, meaningful and measureable diversity performance objectives for the year ahead.  

Thirdly, we have set an ambitious diversity challenge to be truly  representative of Scotland’s working population by 2025, by driving welcome and demonstrable change and innovation into our recruitment and talent pipeline work.  

But it’s not all about diversity and numbers. All of us need to feel welcome, safe, and accepted for who we are, and supported to do our best at work. And some of this is about getting the basics right. We have heard some tough messages from disabled colleagues about workplace adjustments. So we are addressing employee experience and ensuring our managers have both the skills and confidence to lead diverse teams and to access support when its needed. 

As a major employer in Scotland, Scottish Government is aiming to set a Fair Work example for others to follow – for example, we don’t have  unpaid internships. We are setting a target for the numbers of disabled people working within our organisation, in addition to the civil service target for disabled people entering the Senior Civil Service. And we shall shortly have a recruitment and retention action plan for disabled people – again, focussing on improving the experience of colleagues at work, not simply boosting numbers. 

But we all know – culture eats strategy for breakfast. Policy changes, data analysis, targets or initiatives alone are not enough. The fact remains discrimination is still a feature of our society and 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. As you’ll hear today, an inclusive workplace is one where everyone has a sense of belonging, one which allows everyone to be their authentic selves, and ensures they have a voice in their teams and the organisation. It is also about speaking truth unto power – and power being around to hear it.

So before I hand back to Lisa, my final point to you is this.  

It’s for each one of us to call out – to take action, to challenge and to change. It’s not someone else’s responsibility, it’s ours. For my part, 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 wider organisation – how ambitious are we? How inclusive and diverse are our decision-making spaces? If we are talking the talk – are we walking the walk? Because it’s simply not enough to care – we have to listen, recognise and act. And be persistent and tenacious in our commitment.  

To quote New York Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez: "Prevent division by championing one another - reject the zero sum that some communities win at a cost to others."   

Thank you.


Central enquiry unit: ceu@gov.scot

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