Diverse senior leaders talk about working in the Civil Service

Jolyon Thomson OBE

In our seventh blog in this series, Jolyon Thomson OBE, Deputy Director - International and Trade, talks about his experience of working in the Civil Service.

About Jolyon

Jolyon has been a Government lawyer for 25 years, primarily working on international and EU law in Defra’s areas of responsibility. He is currently Deputy Director (International and Trade) leading a team focusing on EU and global trade negotiations and before that, spent 18 years specialising in international environmental matters, for which he was awarded an OBE and share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is registered blind and co-chairs the Government Legal Department’s Disability and Mental Health Network.  

What do you think the Civil Service needs to do to attract more candidates from a more diverse background into senior roles? What advice do you have for recruiters?

I shall respond on the basis of what I know best, namely the position relating to civil servants with disabilities.

Civil servants need to see and hear from those at senior levels that have made it. Importantly, the message needs to be that not only is it possible to reach the Senior Civil Service (SCS) but also that it’s a viable and sustainable role. Many potential SCS candidates are self-denying in terms of how they perceive their own ability to operate effectively at that level.

We should certainly now be in a position in 2021, 25 years after the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act, to ensure reasonable adjustments, intelligent work planning, and other suitable arrangements can be made (at the suggestion of the candidate who will always know better than a line manager what is feasible) so that those with disabilities can thrive at senior levels. But that can only be achieved when the most senior leaders can see the benefits and opportunities of allowing disabled staff to play to their strengths, and for those staff to have the confidence that the system will operate in that way.

Targets for Senior Civil Service with disabilities (for Government Legal Department, that is 10%) help provide momentum but are only the start of the necessary culture change needed for both line managers and staff.

What could the Civil Service do better to attract and retain civil servants from a more diverse background overall (at any level)? What do you see as the barriers?

I think it is a combination of visible role models and effective targeting. Whilst the Civil Service is making great strides in ensuring that interview panels are appropriately diverse, candidates from diverse backgrounds need to be enticed to apply.  There can be no substitute for a role model at a career fair (or to a lesser extent) in promotional material demonstrating how those from diverse backgrounds can make it to the Senior Civil Service (SCS).

Using the right opportunities for publicity is also important though. Many Government departments (including my own, the Government Legal Department) are members of the Business Disability Forum (BDF) alongside many significant private sector employers, thereby highlighting the fact that the Civil Service is very much open to disabled applicants.

What has been your personal experience of working in the Civil Service? What made a difference to you?

My first experience working for the Civil Service was in the early 1990s as a summer student following graduation in the Legal Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Significantly, the Legal Director and head of the department at the time was completely blind.  That showed me, at first hand, and in my very first experience of the Civil Service, that disability did not matter, and those with disabilities could reach the top positions. Indeed, I should say that that in itself did not surprise me: I have never seen my own visual impairment as any reason to prevent me from undertaking the career that interested me, namely one involving international and EU law. The fact that the head of the division was also blind seemed entirely appropriate and no big deal really.  It was only when I then moved into undertaking my legal training in the private sector that I realised how unusual that was.

Since becoming a permanent Government lawyer in 1996, my experience has been, in the main, hugely positive. I have received wholehearted support from the vast majority of my senior managers and have had no indication that joining the SCS would be a problem. Actually, in my interview for my first SCS role, the fact that I knocked over my water glass creating a wave of water that rushed towards the Panel’s notes, and the fact that we had to suspend the interview whilst they all hunted for paper towels, seemingly did not undermine their preparedness to offer me the role.

There have, though, been moments in my career where I have felt that managers have, seeking to do their best, nevertheless substituted their own judgments about the limits of my capabilities, which at the time was hugely demotivating and frustrating: following a major eye operation with an outcome resulting in significant sight loss, I was directed towards tabular work on screen rather than international negotiations, my area of expertise, which no doubt was arranged with the best of intentions by two Deputy Directors, but did not take account of my own views on what was possible.

Despite my favourable experiences, I have also come across instances where the question of disability has come up in the recruitment process. I was once asked at an interview why I thought I could do the role given my disability (and it was a simple legal advisory role), and I know of others who believe (whether rightly or wrongly) that they have been discriminated against when applying for promotion. I only hope, in this day and age, being on interview panels myself and letting my guide dog wander around the room hopefully de-stressing the candidate, that no one can be in any doubt that disability should not be a negative consideration in the recruitment process.

Why is diversity particularly important at senior levels?

The senior leadership of the Civil Service needs to represent the population it serves.  With 11 million disabled people in the UK, it is right that people at large, and those with disabilities in particular, have the confidence that policy development, decision-making and delivery are carried out by those with an understanding of their needs.

What experiences did you have working at a senior level in the private sector? Are there lessons that the Civil Service can learn from the private sector in terms of recruiting staff from a more diverse background?

My own experience in the private sector, albeit at a junior level, does not compare favourably with my Civil Service experience. This was also a factor alongside the interest in the unique work offered for my decision to forge a legal career in Government.

As a legal trainee and assistant in a major commercial law firm, I was often neglected and given no work to do at times when my colleagues were overworked and could have done with support. I took this as a misunderstanding on the part of my employers as to what I was capable of, given my disability, and my regular requests for work (and concerns about my treatment) were not heeded.

Of course, there were one or two enlightened individuals back in 1995 who did have confidence in me and provided the support that they could. But my treatment did make me feel like an outsider compared with my peers, and I was determined to make a career ultimately in Government, but first with a foray to Brussels to work for the European Commission and some EU law barristers, where my experience was entirely positive.

These days City law firms recruit on the basis of points systems, where points are added for those with extenuating circumstances, often for social mobility and other reasons designed to favour those who would otherwise be overlooked. Whilst in GLD we are particularly keen to attract applicants from diverse backgrounds, tailoring our summer placement and recruitment schemes accordingly, there is always something to learn from the way others do it. Diverse groups are more underrepresented at senior levels in the private sector in the main, and this will only improve over time as the pool of candidates at lower levels becomes more diverse.

Specific initiatives exist e.g. the 30% Club or Ginger to encourage underrepresented groups into senior roles, or to increase the self-confidence of applicants in terms of public speaking, and we need to ensure that our own internal Civil Service and Government Legal initiatives (for example Race to the Top and REACH for those with disabilities) can keep pace with what is known to work and put people into senior roles.

What drives and motivates you in your career?

Two things: firstly, the unique nature, challenge and interest of the work we do within Government; and, secondly, the wish to develop and bring on others to share in that sense of enthusiasm, passion and fulfilment. In applying the latter, it is my belief, based on my own experiences that I have relayed here, that everyone should have the chance to fulfil their potential - whatever their circumstances.

What are your interests and hobbies outside work?

There hasn’t been much time for those lately thanks to Brexit demands and the constraints of lockdown. But I am very much looking forward to the time when I can go out for a proper walk with my yellow Labrador guide dog Melody, preferably in some fresh Scottish air. When not constrained, I enjoy going to concerts and theatre.  In the meantime, talking books are keeping me going.

Richard Webb
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