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Civil Service

The Race Champion Blog – difference equals success for the Civil Service

Head and shoulders image of Richard Heaton
Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, and Civil Service Race Champion

Introduction from Richard Heaton

Welcome to the Race Champion Blog!

In this new series of posts I will be introducing inspirational people who are working hard to make our Civil Service more inclusive and more representative.                         

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I am pleased to share a post written by Sam Balch at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) who has been breaking down conversational barriers between people of different backgrounds.

As Sam says, it can be difficult to talk about race at work. Some parts of the Civil Service deserve credit for having made these conversations easier, and that in turn has made it more likely that we’ll become a truly inclusive workplace. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s race network, for example, have encouraged a really lively discussion following the publication of the Black Skin, Whitehall report.  I recently joined the network chairs and the FCO Board to discuss what race means in their particular national and global context.

The Government Digital Service and the Ethnic Diversity Programme are also joining in, and will be hosting workshops at Civil Service Live on the theme of ‘Let’s talk about Race”. I look forward to seeing some of you there in the summer.

Dear white people, we need to talk about race

Sam Balch

Head and shoulders image of Sam Balch wearing dark blue jacket and light blue shirt
Sam Balch

Does talking about race at work make you feel uncomfortable? Do you end up dancing around particular words for fear of offending people? Have you thought about why that is, and what impact this may be having?

I suspect there are several reasons behind this. First, I think many white people – like myself – can be blind to our own race and what difference this makes. Second, in the Civil Service, we pride ourselves on treating people equally, so when it comes to talking openly about our differences (including race) we tend to avoid this. Third, there are few opportunities to have genuinely open conversations about race in the Civil Service with one another.

Over the last year, I have been on a bit of a personal journey around these issues, culminating in this blog. I am part of a mixed-race relationship – my partner is British Bengali – and we have two children. Our oldest is in primary school and is starting to talk to us about her skin colour and cultural identity. We talk openly with her at home about our own race and religion to help her make sense of the world.

I have found work a real contrast to that, and conversations about race often get left at the door. From talking to people, it seems that talking about race can sometimes be seen as taboo – even little things like identifying someone as black, white or Asian – for fear of offending them.

In this environment, the risk is that people who are less well represented – particularly at more senior grades – feel unable to be themselves at work, talk openly about the issues they face, or put themselves forward for more senior roles. This can reduce the pipeline of talent for the Civil Service, and may prevent people from performing at their best if they cannot bring their whole selves to work.

Over the last year, several experiences have made me reflect on this more, and think about what I can do to change things. It started when I volunteered to be reverse-mentored. I was paired with Pat, a black British lady, whose relatives had come from the Caribbean. Over the course of several months, we had regular chats where we talked about our life stories and experiences. These conversations revealed some surprising similarities (e.g. where we had lived in London), but also some stark differences in terms of our lives, experiences and opportunities. We also had frank conversations about our different experiences of the Civil Service in relation to race, and what this meant for our careers.

Following this, I shared my learning and reflections with the rest of my team, and this seemed to strike a chord, triggering a wider conversation about social mobility and class. This also led to further conversations with members of the BEIS Faith and Minority Ethnic (FAME) network through Adrian, a black colleague in my team. They felt that while the network frequently discussed these issues, it was largely amongst an ethnic minority audience.

As a white person, I offered to see what I could do to help broaden the conversation about race beyond ethnic minority colleagues to other white colleagues. The response has been very positive. I’ve found a clear desire and willingness to learn more about one another, and an appetite to join a wider conversation about race and racial equality issues.

If you would like to be part of this conversation, the Government Digital Service and the Ethnic Diversity Programme will be hosting workshops at Civil Service Live in June and July on the theme ‘Let’s talk about Race”.

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  1. Comment by G Thomas posted on

    Thank you Sam for sharing with us your thoughts.

    Having been in the Civil Service over 28+ years, I have seen a significant change in attitude towards the issue of Race and Ethnicity but as I have experienced, there is unfortunately still elements of discrimination that BAME colleagues.

    In my most recent experience, it was evident that the person who made the comments was unaware to the insulting nature of their remarks and had made an assumption based on the fact that I was non-white! So there is still work to be done.

    I am however encouraged that the FCO is looking to address Diversity and inclusion by the release of History Notes on Race, Gender Equality and LGBT+.

    These have not only provided a great starting point for us to have an honest discussion, but also shows how much progress has been made to ensure that we have a more inclusive place of work and colleagues can be more authentic without fear of prejudice.

    Much of this achievement has been through the fantastic work that the FCO Staff Associations have been doing and in particular seeking to challenge unacceptable behaviour and so, I would like to commend them for their efforts.

    I would agree that if we continue to have such conversations and we have colleagues who are willing to support the various D&I Groups, we will continue to achieve further success and who knows, one day we might even have a BAME Head of the Civil Service!

  2. Comment by Paul Harcombe posted on

    I suppose one measure of how comfortable or free people - of any race - feel about mentioning it, talking about it, or having any kind of public opinion is how many replies you get to this blog ...

  3. Comment by Catherine Ahorituwere posted on

    Sometimes you get the feeling that it's all about the 'talking' and not about the 'doing'. That said thank you Sam for getting some of it, possibly because it's relatable and you somewhat experience it, and by 'it' I mean appreciating some of the daily prejudices people of colour are faced with in their workplaces. I hear of different shocking scenarios on a daily basis, I have also lived it. That said, I remain proud of my over 2 decades of dedicated civil service delivery. The only imminent expectation is cultural change!!