Simon Tse – We need to talk about race. And do better.

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When I was asked if I would become Cabinet Office Race Champion by the previous Permanent Secretary Sir John Manzoni in October 2019, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

I was honoured to be asked, and being the first person from an ethnic minority to fill the role was even more poignant for me. I also joined the Race Leadership team at Business in the Community (BITC), to ensure that we can work together and that the Civil Service and the private sector can learn from each other and share good practice.

I was born in Swansea back in the early 1960s to a Welsh mother and a father born in Hong Kong, and I was brought up on my mother’s side of the family. Other than my siblings, there was only one other non-White child at our primary school and I often felt conflicted, like I didn’t fit in – asking if I’m Welsh, British, Asian, or mixed race? In truth I am all of these, but it has taken me many years to reconcile this and feel comfortable about it. I even disliked my surname, and having to explain how to pronounce it. Nowadays I’m proud of it, even making it into a lighthearted joke – “Tse pronounced as Chair, as in table and Tse”!

In the Cabinet Office, we have made significant progress in terms of ethnic minority representation across the organisation. In the past 8 years we have increased our BAME representation from 11% to 18%. We are proud to be finalists for our work on our representation efforts in the 2020 Employers for Equality and Inclusion awards. But there is more to do to ensure that our BAME representation is reflected evenly across the whole of our talent pipeline especially in the Senior Civil Service.

Within our organisation we are working together to promote a culture of inclusion through the Cabinet Office Values; Respect, Trust and Collaborate, which are important both in terms of learning from different points of view, and embedding thinking on ethnicity and inclusivity into our daily work.

I want everyone in the Cabinet Office to talk about ethnicity and race, as it’s not until we remove barriers and have these conversations that we will make changes in how race is seen and how we truly become a fully inclusive Cabinet Office and Civil Service. This has always been important, but the Public Health England report into the significant impact of Covid-19 on people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, has brought a sense of urgency and a sharper focus to the issue. What’s really important is that we start talking about race equality, and the lived experience of colleagues from an ethinic minority background in the Cabinet Office.

There is positive change happening across the Civil Service. We have had a strategy in place for a number of years, and more recently have underpinned that with clear minimum expectations for our work on D&I. This year is our Year of Inclusion in the Civil Service , and we have seen a range of events designed to bring people together and learn from one another on how we’re making our organisation the UK’s most inclusive employer. But when you look at the statistics for BAME representation, especially across the most senior levels of the Civil Service, it is clear that there is still a lot of work to do – currently only 6% of Senior Civil Servants across the Civil Service have identified as BAME. I understand that I am only 1 of fewer than 10 non-White Director Generals in the whole of the Civil Service, which shows we still have a long way to go.

What are we doing about it?

In my role as Race Champion, I am ensuring that I am asking difficult questions of my colleagues both in Cabinet Office and across the Civil Service. Can we be even more ambitious in our mission to ensure that Civil Service is the most inclusive employer in the UK? We must ensure that we do everything we can to try to reverse racial inequalities. But how?

As newly appointed Civil Service D&I Champion, Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Civil Service, Alex Chisholm and I are working together to ensure that these discussions are being had across our organisation. Alex has made hearing from BAME colleagues a priority, attending sessions with our networks in his first days in the role, and we are agreed that clear and decisive leadership is needed to make the changes that we want to see happen. Alex told me:

“I’m taking the reins as Civil Service D&I Champion at a time when we have a more diverse Senior Civil Service than ever before. But at a time when we know we have so much more to do. It’s an enormous responsibility. We have an opportunity to really embed the minimum standard we have set ourselves, both at an individual and collective level – but this won’t happen without clear and decisive leadership. And while we know we need to accelerate diversity across our organisation (including on boards, recruitment panels and in our top jobs) a huge part of this is going to be about creating more inclusive cultures. Voice, authenticity and belonging are at the heart of the Civil Service inclusion model and embedding these principles will provide us with firm foundations on which to build.”

Practical actions to take

One thing that we can do is to accelerate progression and to increase representation of BAME people in the workplace at all levels. This will mean getting better at succession planning and developing talent, particularly from under-represented communities. We also need to ensure that we are hearing diverse voices in all of our decision making, especially at the current time in light of Covid-19. When decisions need to be made quickly, it is easy for ‘group-think’ decisions to be made, which runs the risk of the potentially devastating impact on the most vulnerable and underrepresented groups in society, whose input has not been included. It is also easy for unconscious and unintended bias to sneak into selection processes, including when redeploying colleagues across the Civil Service and I want to ensure that all colleagues are being given equal opportunities to be involved in the government response.

Additionally, we are running sponsorship schemes in the Cabinet Office and other departments. The role of sponsors is to be openly advocating for the person they sponsor, connecting them with contacts, opening doors and recommending them for projects and/or career opportunities, with the aim of allowing colleagues from ethnic minority backgrounds to access career development opportunities that may not otherwise have been available to them.

We have designed a Let’s Talk About Race programme with Cherron Inko-Tariah. We are taking an intelligence based approach towards these sessions. We will be focusing on running sessions within business areas that have the greatest need starting with our Senior Leadership Group in July. The aspiration is that if we can equip our Senior Leadership Group in starting those conversations, that might feel uncomfortable to them, with their wider teams we can then really shift the dial across the wider organisation. We had this planned before Covid-19, but the Black Lives Matter protests has meant greater engagement across the department. At these sessions, colleagues hear examples of the lived experiences of colleagues from an ethnic minority background of the subtle, covert, and sometimes not so subtle, overt racism, that is still happening, and these stories have a profound impact on all who hear them. In response to the recent events, I wrote an article calling on White allies to engage more in the conversations about race in the department, and I am so pleased with the overwhelming response the article received.

I am also working closely with the Cabinet Office D&I team and Cabinet Office Race Equality Network to establish a Race Board, which will set and drive the strategy for the work we do on race and ethnicity across the Cabinet Office. I want to use the Race Board to ensure that all the good work that is being done across the Cabinet Office by really committed individuals and networks has as much impact as possible.

Finally, I hope to encourage and inspire BAME colleagues to realise their potential – reaching the highest ranks of the Civil Service which will not be an ‘If’ but a ‘When’. But first we need to get better at recognising the intersectionality of identities, so that everyone is able to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, in an environment where they can flourish. I really encourage colleagues to expand their personal networks – collaboration and the interaction will be key.

I’d like to leave you with some tips, for other Race Champions and for all colleagues, as to how we can really look to make the step change that is so needed to really address racial inequalities in organisations:

  • • Ensure that you are asking yourselves the following questions when decision making:
    • • Do we have any BAME people around the table?
    • • If not, how are we going to hear and learn from the lived experiences from Britons from diverse backgrounds?
    • • How can we include their voices?
    • • Do we have employees from BAME backgrounds that can join our team?
    • •How can we consult with BAME communities to hear their lived experiences and challenges?
  • • Ask your colleagues from ethnic minority backgrounds, and in particular your Black colleagues, how they are feeling – create safe spaces for discussing these issues, and really listen to their answers.
  • • Educate yourself. Do not expect people from ethnic minority backgrounds to educate you on racism, but do listen to their lived experiences. There is so much material available, whether articles, books, podcasts, videos, and documentaries. Look at the books on your bookshelf, how many are from Black authors? Look at the books you read to your children – how diverse are the characters in the books? Self-reflect.
  • • Don’t be afraid to speak out about racism for fear of getting it wrong. When you see something, do something. Model this to others. Don’t avoid the vital, if uncomfortable, conversations.
  • • Ask senior leaders what they are doing to drive race equality in the workplace at all levels.
  • • Don’t keep quiet for fear of being seen as ‘tokenistic’ or ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. This is not just a hashtag, a trend or a passing phase, and we ALL need to continue these conversations.
  • • Be conscious of how you are using your voice and be reflective of your own actions. This is about words and actions.
  • • Volunteer as a mentor to a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic colleague, or become a Senior Sponsor.
  • •Join a staff network.

Donate your time to causes working to create race equality

Simon Tse
Chief Executive, Crown Commercial Service (CCS)

Simon Tse is Chief Executive, Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and is responsible for overseeing the CCS’s direction and management and ensuring its strategic objectives are met. As accounting officer they are responsible to Parliament for the organisation’s use of public money and its assets under its trading fund status.

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