There’s much more that Labour’s Angela Rayner could consider on civil service diversity beyond oxbridge graduates

It goes far beyond the Civil Service Fast Stream (of which I was an in-service candidate back in 2006), and covers issues such as lifelong learning, and the local-central division of powers. Labour’s deputy leader could commission some in-depth research that could incorporate those issues that collectively may have a far greater impact on diversity – and not just in the civil service.

The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, was quoted here. One of the things I say to potential civil service applicants I meet here in Cambridge is that the job involves dealing with the problems of society. So if any of them have been through the route of great school, outstanding college, top university – and have never experienced failure, their life experiences may not put them in the best position to help resolve those very difficult public policy issues. After which I point them in the direction of the Cambridge Hub and their programmes, several of which put student volunteers working with people and communities in and around some of our most economically-deprived neighbourhoods.

I’ve sponsored two cohorts of Cambridge students on their social innovation programme (Cambridge charities and voluntary groups, please consider putting yourselves forward for this Autumn’s programme). The calibre of students I worked with was very high – and their ability to overcome the significant barriers of delivering a combined report without ever meeting in person in the face of lockdowns was incredible.

You will still find the bastions of conservatism if you go looking for them, but you are more likely to find students concerned about and campaigning on issues of equality and social justice than fighting for the privileges of the aristocracy. In Cambridge anyway. Furthermore, Cambridge City Council does not have any Conservative councillors elected to its council chamber (The Green Party has two). Neither does Oxford – where The Green Party has three councillors).

There are a number of things Ms Rayner is getting at. One is inevitably (and rightly) the long term inequalities issues within the civil service. Again, I come back to the point that having a senior civil service cohort disproportionately from private-school-&-oxbridge backgrounds reduces the chances that those in highly influential roles will have lived, or at least lived in and around those who have faced the challenges of the various things that make up what academics call multiple deprivation. Things like living in sub-standard housing, poor schooling, limited community facilities, unemployment, air pollution, poor public transport, poor health and limited healthcare provision, few opportunities, and so on. But then the same applies with MPs and ministers. At one point under the Tories since 2010 nearly all of their ministers in the Department for Education were from privately-educated backgrounds. So how were they supposed to empathise with the schools in the most deprived areas facing closures to Sure Start centres and budget cuts in the face of austerity? Or cuts to police numbers from the much-criticised Home Office? The civil service can only be so effective as ministers will let them. If Prime Ministers are not appointing MPs of ministerial calibre to ministerial office, there’s a problem. If the political system inevitably means too few MPs of ministerial calibre get elected, there’s a problem – no matter how effective your civil service is. How many current or potential ministers undergo public policy training? A question all political parties may wish to ask themselves.

The half-life of academic qualifications

My economics degree certificate will be 20 years old next year. How much is it worth? Probably less than the paper it is printed on. Not just because I had a rubbish time at university, but also because over the past 20 years the research in the field has shown up the limitations of the ‘pro-market’ philosophical basis that underpinned much of what was on the course. Along with some serious propriety issues with some big name economists exposed at the time of the banking crisis of 2008.

My A-levels and all my qualifications before then are from the 1990s – pre-dating the internet era. Are they worth the paper that they are printed on? Why do corporate and institutional employers still insist on time-wasting processes for people to list qualifications long obsolete or which required an acquisition of knowledge or lists of facts that they might have long forgotten. How much of you who took modern languages at GCSE or equivalent and did not continue with them, still remember what you learnt?

A 20 year old degree also implies that I’m less familiar with the methods of learning and tools available for research – along with the opportunities and limitations that go with them. In which case Ms Rayner’s questions on the academic requirements of civil service posts are actually very well timed. Because they link to the Education Select Committee’s report on Lifelong Learning, published earlier this year. What are the suitable processes for people to keep their academic knowledge up to date? Suitable in that they take into account job changes, career changes, time off for childcare, health needs, unemployment, and more?

Does the current workplace enable workers to take extended paid time off for education and new qualifications? If not, why not? Especially if we are in a world where skills and knowledge have a premium, where we don’t have jobs for life, and where each new qualification acquired – especially if degree level, implies taking on massive debts on top of existing debts from previous periods of study, mortgages, and consumer spending.

What should the civil service – and employers generally be asking for with qualifications? Especially for older workers?

This for me is a can-of-worm question, because it opens up a host of linked issues that don’t have easy public policy answers. Public policy is complex by its very nature.

“…it is skills, experience and hard work that matter”

Rt. Hon. Angela Rayner MP, The Observer, 20 June 2021.

In which case for generalist civil service vacancies, is it not the skills and experience of the most recent years that carry more weight than qualifications of decades gone by? Does that imply a slightly different framework for many older workers who might not have been back to full time learning since leaving school in their teens, or graduating in their early 20s?

Gove’s speech on Government Reform does not mention local government

Which speaks volumes because one of the biggest challenges I saw in my civil service days was a lack of knowledge of how local councils function, let alone how they came about and why they are important. Yet Mr Gove’s speech did not mention councils at all. Which is striking given the mention by name of various towns and cities across the country.

What are the public policy mechanisms that ensure learning from local councils feed back into public policy-making processes? Are there enough people inside the highly influential Whitehall posts who are more than familiar with local councils? What systems and processes are in place to enable civil servants to gain meaningful experience in local councils without getting a sense they are ‘missing out’ by not being close to the centre of the policy-making world? One underrated way of increasing diversity in the civil service is increasing the interchange between local councils and the civil service. But that means coming up with a system that facilities the movement of local government officials into the civil service (including down to London), and civil servants into local government – including out of London. Is there such a system? How many are on it? How well does it function? What impact is it having?

Are The Government’s announcements on moving parts of various departments out of London anything substantial?

We’ve seen the spin of moving various functions out of London – something successive governments have done ever since Sir Humphrey Appleby discussed similar proposals with…no hang on, that’s the TV sitcom.

There is a case for moving the day-to-day delivery of services such as anything to do with motoring, or the issuing of passports, outside of London. They don’t need to be near ministers who need to be near Parliament on a day-to-day basis. Senior managers can head down to London or log into a zoom call as and when necessary. But what happens if an MP tables an urgent question and the minister responsible for the policy is on their day out of London? Perhaps this is where questions from MPs to ministers over Zoom will become the norm.

Given the changing working practices, the opportunities new communications technologies have given us, and the changing expectations and values of the general public post-Lockdown – along with the climate emergency, is the highly-centralised system of government the UK has still fit for purpose? Which functions should be devolved (including taxation and spending) to local councils, and which should be elevated up to international organisations? (Putting aside for now the essential requirement for ensuring said international organisations are democratically accountable to the people they serve. And yes, that might imply re-joining the EU in future decades. Just not tomorrow).

Food for thought?

It is almost ten years to the day that I finished my last day at work in the Civil Service. Inevitably it’s a very different place to the one that I left – my old department has shrunk significantly and is now co-located with the Home Office.

These days my focus is on local democracy in and around Cambridge, as well as my research on the making of modern Cambridge (the city – from a perspective of Cambridge town).

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