From education to employment

Civil servants from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be promoted to senior positions

New research by the Social Mobility Commission (@SMCommission) shows that civil servants from poorer backgrounds are less likely to make it to senior levels

Nearly three out of four senior civil servants are from privileged backgrounds with those from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes struggling to gain promotion, new research from the Social Mobility Commission shows today.

A comprehensive analysis of over 300,000 civil servants shows just 18% of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 72% from privileged backgrounds. One in four of those in the current 6,000-strong Senior Civil Service went to independent school.

The research drawn from both the Civil Service People Survey 2019 and over 100 in-depth interviews with current staff provides a valuable insight into who gets on in Whitehall and how, highlighting obstacles to career progression on the way.

Based on these results the Commission has drawn up a detailed action plan for the Civil Service to ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have an easier route to the top.

“Civil servants from disadvantaged backgrounds are significantly under-represented in the organisation and even if they do ‘get in’ they can struggle to ‘get on’,” said Steven Cooper, interim Co-Chair of the Social Mobility Commission.

“I have been impressed by the level of transparency shown by the Civil Service in embarking on this joint project and sharing their previously unpublished data with us. The focus now should be on considering and swiftly implementing the action plan.”

Officials that get promoted from junior grades are more likely to have policy rather than operational posts, work in departments near the political centre of power like the Treasury and live in London. Only 12% of those working at the Treasury are from a low socio-economic background compared to 45% at the Department for Work and Pensions. Similarly, only 22% of civil servants in London are from working class backgrounds compared to 48% in the north-east.

The SMC report ‘Navigating the labyrinth’ by Sam Friedman, incoming Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, describes in detail “the behavioural code” to ensure promotion in the Civil Service. It suggests that those who do progress exhibit “a studied neutrality”. This is defined as having the right accent or “received pronunciation”, an emotionally detached and understated way of presenting oneself and an “intellectual approach” to culture and politics.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds can be intimidated and alienated by this behavioural code, though many realise that the only way to get on is to adopt it. The complex journey to the top is described by interviewees as a “velvet drainpipe”.

“An important part of progressing through the labyrinth of the Civil Service is mastering the unwritten rules; what jobs to take, where to work, how to negotiate opportunities, and above all how to behave,” said Dr Friedman. “And strikingly it is those from privileged backgrounds who hold the upper hand in unpicking these hidden rules.”

The Civil Service workforce action plan 

ACTION POINT 1.   Establish a cross-departmental workforce strategy to improve socioeconomic diversity and inclusion within the Civil Service, with delivery at a local level in departments. The Cabinet Office should have responsibility for overseeing and ensuring effective implementation.
ACTION POINT 2.  Introduce workforce-wide reporting on socio-economic background
ACTION POINT 3.  Use training and ‘learning and development’ to drive positive change – Our work on adult education and training shows persistent and clear trends: those from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to receive training than their less privileged peers.
ACTION POINT 4.  Use apprenticeships to drive strategy – The Civil Service apprenticeship strategy – and the wider public sector strategy – does not currently address socio-economic diversity sufficiently. We know that apprenticeships do not automatically boost socio-economic diversity unless there is an explicit commitment to targeting offers and support to the working class.
ACTION POINT 5.  Increase representation of senior civil servants (SCS) from low SEBs
ACTION POINT 6.  Equalise access to accelerator roles, those roles which act to accelerate careers by exposing staff to senior leaders or giving access to high profile work.
ACTION POINT 7.  Formalise the informal, to further strengthen promotion processes and bring ‘grey moments’ into better compliance with fair recruitment
ACTION POINT 8.  Think beyond Whitehall – For Places for Growth to deliver meaningful change for socio-economic diversity and inclusion, it is not enough to simply export lower-level roles to the regions and leave high profile, senior positions in London.
ACTION POINT 9.  Demystify the policy profession, which is frequently the key to progression prospects
ACTION POINT 10.  Break the taboo around social class. This has important knock-on effects on mental health, wellbeing, and a sense of inclusion and belonging in the workplace.
ACTION POINT 11.  Start a conversation about talent. Conduct an audit of Future Leaders Scheme and other accelerated development schemes.
ACTION POINT 12.  Focus on cumulative barriers to progression for low SEB women and ethnic minorities
ACTION POINT 13.  Create legal protection – Social mobility efforts in the Civil Service tend to be thwarted by the fact that legal protection for socio-economic background is not enshrined in the Equality Act.
ACTION POINT 14.  Parliament should consider permanently adopting virtual working trialled during COVID-19, to enable MPs and Ministers to be based for more of the time in their constituencies or elsewhere in the UK.

The Commission’s comprehensive action plan to improve career progression in the Civil Service which it hopes will be adopted by employers throughout the country includes:

  • reporting of socio-economic data within all departments – by location, gender, ethnicity, disability and LGBT
  • using national benchmarks to assess progress with the aim of ensuring a representative Civil Service
  • greater scrutiny of the SCS and five-year targets to increase representation from those from low socio-economic backgrounds

Other recommendations include introducing laws to ensure that socio-economic background is a protected characteristic and permanently adopting virtual working of Parliament to enable MPs and ministers, with Civil Service hubs, to be based outside London.

The Commission notes recent positive progress in some of these areas, including government’s plans to move more roles out of London, more senior civil servants and greater non-operational roles, such as policy making, outside of the capital.

Other key findings:

London has the least socio-economically diverse workforce compared to other regions, but the most opportunity for progression

  • The London-based workforce is significantly less socio-economically diverse than the rest of the country – 66% are from high socio-economic backgrounds (SEB) compared to 41% in the north-east, and only 22% in London are from working class backgrounds compared to 48% in the north-east
  • The three most socio-economically exclusive work regions are in the south of England, and two of the three most socio-economically diverse areas in the north of England
  • There are far more top-grade posts located in London than elsewhere. While 20% of civil servants work in London, the capital is home to 66% of all SCS. In contrast, 12% of civil servants are based in the north-west but it houses only 3% of SCS

SCS has remained exclusive

  • The composition of the SCS is roughly unchanged since 1967, the last time this data was collected. Then, 19% were from low socio-economic backgrounds and 67% from privileged backgrounds – although this finding should be read with caution, as it partly reflects the contraction of working-class jobs since the 1960s. See page 19-20

Some departments are more exclusive than others

  • HM Treasury and the (formerly named) Department of Culture, Media and Sport are the most socio-economically exclusive departments (12% and 13% of staff were from low SEBs respectively.) Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs are the most inclusive departments (45% and 42% of staff were from low SEBs respectively)
  • 26% of HM Treasury staff and 22% of the (formerly named) Foreign & Commonwealth Office staff (rising to 48% among FCO SCS) were privately educated, compared to just 5% in HMRC and 4% in the DWP

Civil servants from advantaged backgrounds often downplay their socio-economic privilege

  • 1 in 4 civil servants who self-assess as coming from low SEBs actually had advantaged upbringings. The proportion of those misaligning increases at higher grades (29% at SCS versus 23% and 24% at executive officer and administrative assistant/officer levels)

Female civil servants from working class backgrounds are more likely than men from the same socio-economic bracket to believe their background will hamper their progression.

  • There is little difference in the overall socio-economic composition of male and female civil servants, but low SEB women are more under-represented at senior grades. For instance, women in the SCS are more likely than men to be from high SEBs (73% compared to 71%)

Ethnic minorities in low socio-economic backgrounds face barriers getting into the civil service

  • Except for those of Asian origin, civil servants from ethnic minorities are more likely to be from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. For example, 27% of Black African/African Caribbean AA/AOs are from low SEBs compared to 61% from high SEBs

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