Permanent Secretary, Peter May, and Strategic HR Director for the NICS, Jill Minne, joint NICS diversity champions, discuss ongoing work to promote diversity, tackle areas of underrepresentation and support inclusion within the organisation.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service is nine departments and 23,000 people, but we are one NICS. Working collectively to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland; and equal in our value and contribution, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability or race.
In the Northern Ireland Civil Service, we believe that the more diverse we are, the better we will be. Research supports this, it shows that organisations with diverse leadership teams lead to better decision making and delivery.
We have a clear ambition that the NICS reflects the society we serve. We want a workforce where diversity is valued; with an inclusive culture; where all our people can fulfil their full potential.
Why? Because we truly believe there is strength in difference and, quite simply, it’s the right thing to do. The health and wellbeing of our people is important. We want to make sure they are supported, actively included, feel valued and are able to bring their true selves to work.
Our diversity and inclusion agenda is not about quick wins. We are creating the architecture to achieve real and lasting change to promote diversity, tackle areas of underrepresentation and support inclusion.
This work is already well advanced and we are starting to see positive outcomes.
On gender, we have made significant progress. Despite accounting for slightly more than half of the civil service, women have historically been under-represented at senior levels. However, representation of women within this group continues to increase and now stands at over 38 per cent compared to 31.7 per cent five years ago. We also have four female Permanent Secretaries. Last year we had just one.
An active Women’s Network is well established and aims to drive equal representation of women at all levels. The Network is supporting and empowering women across the organisation to reach their full potential. Speaking about the benefits of being part of the Network, one of its members said: “Engaging with inspirational women across the NICS has really helped me grow in confidence, challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone, and make my voice heard on issues that affect women at all levels.”
Mentoring circles for women have also been hugely successful and work is underway to develop guidance for flexible working arrangements. We know this benefits the workforce as well as the organisation, which was highlighted in a comment from one colleague: “I greatly appreciate the flexibility my organisation has extended and in return I am happy to extend that flexibility back.”
Disability is another area where we have seen under representation; 5.6 per cent of the NICS have declared a disability compared to 9.1 per cent of the wider economically active population. Removing barriers to recruitment for people with disabilities is one of the issues being considered by our Disability Working Group.
Our Autism Working Group has made a real impact. They delivered an event offering practical advice and support to colleagues who are autistic or care for someone with autism. Colleagues also volunteered to share their personal stories during Autism Awareness Week and received amazing feedback from across the NICS. Creating a culture of openness, where people feel able to speak freely about issues affecting them, is an important part of our work on inclusion.
Our participation in International Job Shadow Day, providing work experience opportunities for people with disabilities, was a real success. Providing such work placements doesn’t just help the job seeker, it has tangible business benefits too. “For our part, we got an enthusiastic and competent worker, someone who could advise in a practical way of more appropriate policies to help those with a disability”, said one colleague who benefitted from a three month disability work placement.
Mental Health Charter
Another focus is developing the NICS as a mentally healthy workplace. Last year the Head of the Civil Service, David Sterling, signed up to the Equality Commission’s Mental Health Charter on behalf of the NICS. A clear demonstration from the head of the organisation of our commitment to challenge the stigma which exists around mental health.
LGBT is another area where we can see a positive impact. When our LGBT Staff Network was established, a colleague from the LGBT community wrote to its chair, saying they didn’t feel able to be themselves at work; they weren’t sure what the reaction would be. That’s why we’re working hard to ensure the NICS communicates a strong message to our LGBT colleagues that they are valued and we are fully LGBT inclusive. The Network has achieved much in advancing this and we are proud to have active allies and visible role models across the organisation.
Last year the NICS participated in Pride for the first time as an employer and supported the Staff Network in the Parade, and this year support throughout the civil service has increased. Visible signs of inclusion are important and other steps we took included introducing LGBT workplace posters and rainbow lanyards for any member of staff who wishes to wear one to show support for LGBT colleagues.
The launch of our Trans Equality Policy and Transitioning at Work Guide was a milestone for the NICS in supporting trans people. One of our trans colleagues said the guide “will help trans people feel more confident in the workplace” and “shows them they are valued and included in the organisation”. We couldn’t wish for a better endorsement than that.
Outreach is key in our work to increase the representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the NICS, which currently stands at 0.3 per cent of our workforce. We have engaged with minority ethnic groups to get feedback on how we can best improve access to services, including recruitment. We are looking forward to attending Belfast Mela to connect with underrepresented ethnic minority groups and aim to implement a full programme of outreach. There is much work to be done if we are to be a true reflection of society.
Race and ethnicity is an issue being taken seriously across the NICS. A Racial Equality Champion has been appointed in each department to increase understanding of racial equality and ensure it is mainstreamed into NICS policies and practices. One of our racial equality champions said he receives much positive feedback from colleagues: “They are pleased that the NICS is giving recognition to racial equality issues and that the small number of staff from minority ethnic backgrounds are not forgotten about.”
We’re proud of how far we’ve come but there is much to do. The NICS will continue to learn from others, be part of the conversation and progress this agenda together. We have seen that positive change is possible but realising our vision will take time, effort and commitment.
We are in it for the long haul.
Peter May is Permanent Secretary in the Department of Justice. Jill Minne is Strategic HR Director for the NI Civil Service.