Civil Service Culture, Diversity & Inclusion

There are (at least) four reasons why it is important that the civil service should employ a diverse workforce.

The vast majority of civil servants do not work in central departments (in 'Whitehall') but carry out vital work in Executive Agencies and local offices, paying pensions, conducting driving tests, collecting taxes etc. etc.  This workforce is nowadays relatively diverse.  A brief history and further information is in Part A below.

But those who give policy advice to ministers, including the Senior Civil Service, are far from diverse.  This group contains plenty of women but fails most other diversity tests.  It contains too few who come from the ethnic minorities or from disadvantaged backgrounds but, most worryingly, this group displays a dangerous homogeneity of thought and behaviour.  This problem is discussed in Part B below which is followed, in Part C, by some thoughts about the culture of the Senior Civil Service.

Part D examines whether progress has stalled in recent years.

A:-  Improving Diversity:  A Brief History

The road to diversity began with the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report which was a reaction to widespread nepotism, corruption and inefficiency.  The report recommended that there should be a civil service appointed on merit through open competition, rather than patronage.  But it was strongly attacked at the time by Heads of Departments and their staff, including one Anthony Trollope who had obtained his Post Office clerkship because one of his mother's friends was the daughter-in-law of the secretary of the Post Office.   His semi-autobiographical novel The Three Clerks can be read as attacking promotion on merit.  Another ardent critic was the Treasury's Patronage Secretary, William Hayter, who was alleged to keep two half-wits on the payroll (known as 'Hayter's idiots') whose only function was to compete for promotion with Hayter's desired candidate, thus ensuring that the favoured man always secured the post.  The Northcote Trevelyan reforms accordingly took a long time to become fully embedded in civil service culture - arguably until the early 1900s.   

It took until the 1950s, and arguably later, before women were recruited, employed and promoted on anything like similar terms to men, and it took several more decades before significant numbers of women reached the highest levels of the civil service.  Even so, concerns remain that many of those women have prospered because they had chosen to become 'female chaps'. This does not lead to increased diversity in culture and behaviour. This history and these issues are explored in a separate section of this website.

Subsequent improvements in the diversity of the UK workforce have been mirrored, and often led, by the civil service.

Officials from ethnic minorities made up 14.3% of the whole civil service in 2022, compared with 13.6% of the UK's working age population. 

13.6% of civil servants recorded that they had a disability in 2021, up from 7.6% 10 years earlier.  The percentage for the working population is 14.2%.

Further detail may be found in the Diversity and Inclusion Dashboard published by the Cabinet Office and in the Whitehall Monitor published annually by the Institute for Government.

B:- Whitehall

There is considerable concern that the policy-making and senior ranks of the civil service remains populated by a very homogeneous group of men and women   

It is particularly obvious that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are significantly under-represented in this group.  An important 2021 Social Mobility Commission report "Navigating the Labyrinth" noted that:

Emotional detachment and understated self-presentation are seen as the behavioural hallmarks of senior civil servants, perhaps in contrast to their political leaders. But this ‘neutral’ behaviour can be both alienating and intimidating for those from working class backgrounds. ... The key behavioural code at the top-grades of the Civil Service revolves around mastery of ‘studied neutrality’. This incorporates a particular RP accent and style of speech, an emotionally detached and understated self-presentation, and an intellectual orientation to culture and politics that foregrounds the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake.

Scientists and effective managers are also under represented in the highest and most influential levels of government departments. This problem was highlighted in the 1960s Fulton Report. Writing many years later (in 1999) John Garrett (a consultant in the Fulton team) said that:

The mandarins were rattled by the proposals.  ... A social survey revealed that 85% of the mandarins were from a middle-class background (compared with 51% ten years previously); 71% had arts degrees, mainly in history and classics; and 73% were from Oxbridge (also a recent increase).  An already rigid class system was intensifying ...

The mandarins rarely had experience of managing anything.  They wrote elegant essays to each other.  They were switched from job to job at two-year intervals on the basis that knowing too much would cloud their judgement.  Their overweening arrogance made them dreadful managers of people, but then management was anyway thought an inferior occupation to be carried out by the lower classes.  Specialists were kept to advise them, a principle cynically known as "the expert on tap, but not on top".

The Whitehall establishment went potty ... Lord Redcliffe-Maud wrote: "give me the first class man in any honor's school, provided he has character as well". ... Wilfred Sendal wrote: "I would far rather be ruled by men who were familiar with the tragedies of Sophocles , who had a grounding in the wisdom of Socrates and Plato and then topped it up by a wide reading of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke and Stuart Mill than by one who was an expert electronics engineer or a first-class nuclear physicist."

There has also been far too little progress in getting ethnic minorities into the Senior Civil Service.   Ethnic minorities comprise only 8.7% of the SCS compared with 13.6% of the UK's working age population.  And the Civil Service Commission reported in 2022 that only 8% of ethnic minority candidates had been deemed 'appointable' despite making up 25% of applicants.  

There also appears to have been little progress, in recent years, in attracting and appointing those with a disability into the SCS.  Only 6% of candidates declared a disability in 2022. 

Again, further information may be found in the Diversity and Inclusion Dashboard published by the Cabinet Office.

Jess Bowie wrote a very insightful article in Civil Service World in 2022. Her interviewees argued that:

Richard Hillsdon, a former senior civil servant and occupational psychologist, pointed out that – despite all the training courses and strategies – black and minority-ethnic job applicants are disadvantaged in their success rate at every level of the civil service. They are disadvantaged at the interview stage and “extraordinarily, in these days of anonymous applications”, at the sifting stage as well. “We can’t rely on just boosting the confidence and the skills of people who are applying from the protected groups.  We spend a lot of time trying to ‘build the muscles’ of BAME or women candidates and so on, but huge problems still exist with people recruiting in their own image."

C:-  (Senior) Civil Service Culture

The policy profession within the UK civil service, like all other professions and organisations, has a distinctive culture.  As noted above, its key behavioural code is ‘studied neutrality'. Outwardly, at least, it can appear dispassionate verging on sceptical or even cynical.  This derives from the need for it to support and deliver the policies of the government of the day, which can swing wildly from one objective to another - and not just following general elections.  Successive Secretaries of State can have very different interests and priorities.  This led Fiona Bulmer to remark that:  'One has to wonder about the character of a person who can divorce themselves so completely from the principles of a policy and be so completely dispassionate.  At best they must be cold fish, at worst they lack all conviction'.  Alison Wolf pointed out that civil servants need to be ‘hierarchist’, by which she meant willing to accept significant changes in policy direction imposed from frequently changing political leadership. 

It is interesting to consider why those from a working class backgrounds might find this neutrality so alienating.  One possibility is that it is less because of their ‘class’ and more because they have not been exposed, as children, to ‘professional’ behaviours? I explored this in a blog which you can read here.

BUT ... there are other forces at work.

First, almost all senior officials live in or near London, and many live near each other, send their children to the same schools and so on.

Second, as nicely summarised by James Ball and Andrew Greenway in their book Bluffocracy:-

For those in the civil service, the best way to rise is to look at getting through whatever policy has the minister's eye.  Simply managing and running programmes agreed years ago are vital roles, but not good for the ambitious. ...    [Quoting Nick Hardwick:-] 'The people who get on ... are those who can write a good minute which gets the minister out of trouble.  Not those who can run things so they don't get into trouble in the first place'.

Or, as one knowledgeable commentator said to me in a private conversation in 2015:

Whitehall officials do not see themselves as managers, nor are they interested in focussing on Value for Money.  “I’d rather be doing policy”.  Senior officials believe strongly in the value of their intellect.  But very rarely does being very clever beat knowing what you are doing.

Third, that same commentator noted that:

The civil service culture is also too defensive, and built on a very strong peer group culture, so that the whole of the senior structure resists change – such as the development of a stronger centre – without always giving proper impartial consideration to such ideas.

Recruitment and promotion practices appear to reinforce the current culture, rather than challenge it.  Commenting, in 2023, on the Future Leaders Scheme, Nour Sidawi wrote:

The scheme is systemically rooted in the current educational, cultural, and corporate structures of the UK Civil Service . It is the result of a fractured process that presumes baton passing rather than a team sport.    By attempting to mould people into a single pre-defined model of leadership, rather than linked to the overarching problems that need to be solved, the scheme is built on the wrong things. It focuses on competencies, models, and techniques, which in some ways is like rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.  This one-size-fits-all training causes more problems than it solves: developing people that still feel inexperienced, overwhelmed, under-equipped, and under prepared for the future. It also creates a homogeneity of thinking, self-referential nature, and a culture of conformity and emotional detachment (i.e., “studied neutrality”). 

D:-  Progress has Stalled

Significant improvements in diversity and inclusion (D&I) cannot be achieved unless wholeheartedly supported by both ministers and senior officials.  Progress therefore takes place in fits and starts. 

A 2015 IfG report expressed real concern that there was increasing blokeishness at the top of government:

"Interviewees talked about the influence of some at the top of the organisation in changing the culture there, in particular [the positive nature] of Gus O’Donnell’s tenure as Cabinet Secretary from 2005. ... However, it was their view that, following O’Donnell’s retirement, these practices had not been preserved and that this had an impact on how the Permanent Secretaries Group interacted subsequently. … Some even suggested there had been a regression in SCS culture in recent years:
Things have changed again, particularly over the last five years ... I have seen the culture become more and more macho. The rise of certain individuals, male, white and hugely opinionated, who do not like anyone questioning them, challenging them, has put us back to the Dark Ages. Women are back to being told they are mouthy, aggressive or not leaders when they disagree or display softer inclusive leadership skills. 

Senior minister Michael Gove, has argued that government should be “less southern”, “less middle class” and “closer” to the 52% of people who voted to leave the European Union in 2016’s referendum.  But recent Prime Ministers have always chosen white male courtier-types to be their Cabinet Secretaries. Indeed, as of 2023, there has not yet been a woman Cabinet Secretary, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, or Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, Home Office or Foreign Office.  And the Summer 2022 candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party (and hence Prime Minister) declared that:

I strongly recommend Jess Bowie' response - 'Wokery' (also referenced above) in which she separated fact from fiction and explored the challenges facing those attempting to improve equality in departments.  She concluded:

The trouble is, this stuff is painstaking and can take years to achieve. Like any change that needs to happen across the civil service, it requires a relentless focus and political will behind it. Which brings us back to the crusade against wokery.

For Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, it serves as a useful distraction. “There are times when this fake culture war around wokery suits both ministers and employers because actually, when they’re talking about that, they’re not dealing with the reality of diversity and inclusion issues in departments,” he says. “What does D&I mean in terms of promotion, pay, performance and all of the things that ‘equality of opportunity’ mean in a workplace? That’s what they should be concentrating on. Not the name of an event or who’s attending it.”

Sadly to the ministerial mind, that might seem a bit too taxing. After all, wokery and witches make for a far better soundbite.


Many of the above themes are explored more thoroughly in the Civil Service Reform section of this website, and in particular in the page entitled Civil Service Weaknesses.   The pressures facing senior women are discussed here.

This page was first published in January 2023.  I would be very glad to be corrected if I have got anything wrong, and I would be very pleased to add more material, including comment. Please follow this link to email me.


Martin Stanley

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