A challenge for the civil service – and large institutions alike.

We’ve all had our tuppence-worth over who and what was responsible for the riots that took place in August 2011. Now that peace has been restored, eyes are now moving towards the various institutions and the ‘decision makers’ within them in terms of what happens next.

The police are continuing to make arrests, the courts administering justice and the prisons and young offenders’ centres taking on those jailed. (See The Guardian’s datablog for some of the numbers).

But what about the long term actions?

The first thing to look at is the decision makers – who are they? In the civil service, it is the cohort of senior civil servants within each department – which is lead by a permanent secretary. A quick search through their backgrounds shows Oxbridge comes up regularly – similar to the historical background of previous civil servants that has become so engrained it’s now on the revision materials for some politics students!

But having been to Oxford or Cambridge is not a problem in itself. Having worked with a number of their graduates and having a number of friends who graduated from the latter, Oxford and Cambridge are not universities that you get into by accident; it takes years of hard work just to get there, and then years of ‘work hard play hard’ once you’re in there.

However, track back the (lack of) diversity from the current cohort of permanent secretaries downwards and you find the problem is institutional. The diversity reports for the civil service fast stream show that Oxbridge graduates make up a far greater proportion of candidates selected for appointment than non-Oxbridge candidates. In fact, it is such a politicised issue that the statistics break down applicants into Oxbridge and non-Oxbridge applicants. That alone speaks volumes.

Track back further to accessibility for Oxford and Cambridge and we find, for the latter that four leading independent schools and one Cambridge sixth form college (for the record, my old one – Hills Road Sixth Form College) contributed more students to Cambridge than the bottom 2000 schools and colleges put together.

During my time at Hills Road, it was noticeable that there was a large intake of students who had previously been in schooled at private fee-paying schools such as The Leys, The two Perse schools and St Mary’s. But from a government statistics perspective, the students who transferred into the state system for the sixth form show up as state-schooled students. For somewhere that has the record that Hills Road has for exam results, from a parents’ perspective why pay fees for private education when you can send your children somewhere that on paper gets results just as good as a private education, but with the bonus of being a ‘state sector’ applicant at a time when the establishment is leaning on top universities to make their institutions more accessible to applicants from the state sector?

My point in all of this?

When you go into the civil service – especially if you go into a policy team (which is a given in the generalist stream of the fast stream), your job is to help solve problems: society’s problems.

However, if your background prior to getting onto one of the most prized graduate recruitment and career development programmes in the country is one that may well have insulated you from very problems that large sections of society have to face daily, does this limit both the insights and your ability to work towards solutions to those problems?

Again, my point is not to tear into those who happen to have had that background and are now working their socks off to try and solve these problems – especially in the face of the bloodbath that is every other civil servant fighting for their jobs and careers. My point is about the institutions – and how to improve them.

During my time in the civil service I was a member of two trade unions – the PCS and FDA unions. I was also, at separate times on the branch executive committees on one or the other – giving me face-to-face negotiation time & experience with senior managers. With the latter, one of the things that through the FDA I helped push for was for Cabinet Office to target more of its FastStream publicity towards those universities that had a more statistically diverse intake – pointing them to the statistics at the Higher Education Statistics Agency. (Another was to consider hosting outreach events at the ‘new’ universities where cities had an established and ex-polytechnic university after asking whether a student at a new university was more likely to cross town to an event at the more established university, or vice-versa).

But what can be done prior to all these bright young things joining the graduate recruitment schemes? Boris Johnson made a call some time ago about encouraging gap-year students to take on a volunteering challenge in London rather than abroad. Even the Conservative Party launched their own scheme for young party activists (which is abroad) in Rwanda.

A year after graduating, I found myself ‘drifting’ and in the need of both some guidance and a challenge. So I threw myself into a Prince’s Trust Team. It was three of the hardest months of my life – but for all of us who made it to the end, life-changing. We were all there for different reasons. Some struggled with reading and writing, others had been in trouble with the police while some had come from genuinely tough backgrounds but wanted to make a positive change to their lives. This was a big change from having gone through an education system where beyond secondary school, I became more and more isolated from people who were more likely to experience those challenges.

That experience was to have a profound impact on my interests and decisions I made in the civil service – that impact being ‘little but often’ on the day-to-day things that I did or did not do. (For example choosing to follow-up what seemed like random enquiries from members of the public lost in the maze of transferred telephone calls to making it my business to accept invitations to visit places far away from the bright lights of London). It was those insights that re-enforced by view about what the civil service is – or should be: a service for the people. After all, it was people – tax payers – who paid my salary.

The challenge for institutions – not just the civil service – I think is to ensure that those that come through their ranks to the world of senior management have had experience of spending time and ‘living’ some of the problems that those at the sharper end of society’s problems have to face on a day-to-day basis. This is exactly what the series Tower Block of Commons did with a handful of MPs. But this was just a small number of people for a TV series. If our top institutions that are charged with dealing with the aftermath of things like the riots, sending a few people on some day visits is not going to be nearly enough. Engagement with our more deprived communities has to be on a much larger scale, over a longer period of time and systematic and regular to give us the chance of preventing violent events such as the riots from ever happening again.

But that takes leadership

And it requires people to take risks – ones that put them in places where they may feel very uncomfortable.

  • How many well-paid senior managers or holders of political office would choose to give up nice homes in affluent communities to spend a couple of months living and working with people who, for all we know may simply have not been blessed with the opportunities that they have?
  • How many gap year students would choose the opportunity to work on a literacy or numeracy project in inner-city UK ahead of somewhere abroad?
  • How many student political activists would choose to do a voluntary work in a community suffering from multiple deprivation when you can afford to buy yourself an internship in Central London (or rather, self-fund) that will make a great headline on a CV?

Despite the negative headlines you see in the newspapers and in the media, there are many great people out there in those communities. We just don’t hear about them.

Yet if we in the big institutions don’t listen to the people living in communities suffering from poverty, crime and multiple deprivation, why should they listen to us?


7 thoughts on “A challenge for the civil service – and large institutions alike.

  1. Thanks for writing this, Puffles best friend. I have very few regrets about the time I spent in the Civil Service. I loved the challenges and I don’t think I have ever worked with such a talented bunch. But, I hated the lack of diversity of thought that you describe. It made me so cross to see idea after idea crushed by a Service that has become a monument to mediocrity in places. And I’m afraid that the incentives within the system are not there for the few that we both know are fighting the good fight every day. My old organisation is about to close. A year ago, when it was clear that we were not flavour of the month and many of our staff were not 100% busy, I suggested that we ‘second’ staff to social enterprises and voluntary sector. That would have given them great, relevant experience that would have reminded them why they joined the Civil Service in the first place and the organisations that they went to would have benefited from some great brains. Staff were very up for that, but I’m afraid that a combination of insecurity, HR and ‘we don’t really do things like that around here’ prevented that from happening. Can’t help thinking the outcome might have been different if we had.

  2. I couldn’t finish reading this. I hoped very much I was making incorrect assumptions. I wanted to change the world. I would have studied to change the world if my parents had any notion that world changing was within reach of people like me. They could have told me that it was possible to fix all the things I saw and experienced when I was a child – because I simply assumed that everyone lived like we did and there was no future for those not born in the right place.

    I didn’t ask for brains. I didn’t ask to enjoy thinking. I didn’t suddenly wake up one morning and look around and see all the injustices and deprivation, the crime that comes from alcoholic mothers and the drug use from simple boredom and think ‘we must change this’.

    Who you are is a complexity of jigsaw pieces collectively honed and and shaped so that your experiences inform your decisions. You can read books which can tell you theory but unless part of your policy team is informed by those who know on some visceral level what it is to be starving, to consider the unthinkable because you are going to be homeless, to owe more money than is actually conceivable by the human brain, how can you predict behaviour, and more importantly, how can you ever change that behaviour?

    Even the language we use, behaviour change, has barriers contained within it, neat little picket fences which ensure the people who are supposed to be helped never quite understand what it is the ‘help’ is supposed to be achieving. Advocacy flourishes because no one is speaking the right god. damn. language.

    There is room in policy for everyone. But through apathy, there is now no diversity, and the reflection in decision makers eyes is not the reflection in the common mans eyes.

    When they mirror, we will be back on track.

  3. Have done time in civil service and now work in local govt. Local govt is a different world. It’s where the policy of the policy-makers gets translated into ‘doing’. I can’t believe the contemptuous way in which national politicians treat local government and local govt’s partner institutions, like health trusts, police forces, fire services. While the politicians pontificate, and policy makers have the dread task of turning their sound-bites into something that it might conceivably be possible to implement, local govt is already engaged in the clean up, the rebuild, the healing. The machinery of national govt is vital, but I know from experience it would be strengthened by a healthy dose of local govt “how to”…

  4. Interesting post. As you recognise, the issue is not that the leaders in Government went to a top university – but that for whatever reason access to the best universities appears to be heavily linked to the type of school you went to (though let’s leave that debate to one side for the moment). So the pipeline feeding the leadership in government is limited.

    So how do you ensure leaders in government have the experience and insights to tackle the problems across society?

    One step might be to redouble efforts to ensure that there is fair access for the best candidates from all backgrounds to feel they can apply to the top universities. So increase the range of experience going into the pipeline.

    However, that doesn’t alter the fundamental fact that any individual leader in government will have a limited personal experience of the vast array of problems they are tasked with trying to solve. Even if we are able to increase the diversity of experience of people going into leadership roles – we will never have the breadth of coverage across all the permutations of problems. Nor would it be fair to our future leaders to pigeonhole them into certain areas based on their background.

    The suggestions you make about people getting more involved in particular schemes are good – but I think we need to be a bit more radical. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way problems are approached in government. Going out and engaging with those with direct experience of living through or trying to solve particular issues should be systematically at the forefront of solution development. Rather than hoping that leaders might have picked up insights in this area from their personal experience or extra curricula activities – perhaps it should just be a core part of the leadership’s job to go and immerse themselves as best as they can in the area to gain full understanding of the issues they are dealing with.

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