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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

My priorities as Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Champion

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A Brilliant Civil Service, Diversity and inclusion
Head and shoulders portrait image of Melanie Dawes
Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, and Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Champion

I was delighted when Sir Mark Sedwill asked me to become Diversity and Inclusion Champion for the Civil Service, succeeding Dame Sue Owen. Since my appointment in May I’ve been working with colleagues across the Civil Service to establish my priorities.

Like all of us, my early perspective on diversity and inclusion was shaped by personal experience. When I joined the Civil Service in 1989, women in senior positions were very rare. This was obvious in every meeting, and for many years I felt that I was noticed as a woman first, and for my skills and expertise second.

My mum still has a photograph from the newspapers in the mid-1990s, showing the monthly meeting between the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England, at which they used to decide interest rates. This was in the days before Bank of England independence, and I was a young economist in the Treasury. You can just make me out at the end of the table – the most junior official in the room, and the only one not wearing a tie.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of a huge number of civil servants, we’ve seen the dial shift significantly on gender balance since then. There is more to do, especially in the most senior roles, and in certain departments and functions. But women make up 44.6% of the Senior Civil Service, a record that’s better than most private sector and other public sector organisations. In my four years since 2015 as Gender Champion for the Civil Service, I’ve been proud to push further on things like shared parental leave and the gender pay gap.

Wake-up call

But my work as Gender Champion – which I handed over to Antonia Romeo in May – has also given me a wake-up call about how narrow our efforts on diversity and inclusion have been over the years. Barriers may have come down for women like me. But for those facing more than one barrier – whether it’s about race, social class, sexual orientation or disability – the work we’ve done hasn’t always felt relevant.  

I’ve not found it comfortable to hear this feedback. But those of us who have been lucky enough to reach positions of influence have a responsibility to seek it out, hear it and act on it.

The commitment to diversity and inclusion at the top of the Civil Service is genuine and deeply felt, and it is shared by all my Permanent Secretary colleagues. We have set ambitious targets to increase representation in the Senior Civil Service for people from an ethnic minority background, and for those with disabilities. But we know we need to focus our efforts even more if we are going to tackle the clear gaps in representation and create the truly inclusive culture we want and need.

Three priorities

As Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Champion, I will be prioritising my own effort in three areas.    

First, we need more consistent standards across departments, and we need to start opening up and using our data.

It’s rare that I hear of a new idea that isn’t already happening somewhere in the Civil Service – we’re innovating all the time. But we need to be quicker and clearer about how we adopt and drive best practice everywhere. So – in consultation with our networks – we will be creating a framework of common diversity and inclusion standards that everyone should adopt. We will also be opening up the excellent Civil-Service-wide data pack, so that departments – and networks – can see how we all benchmark. We’ll be following this up with deep-dive visits to departments and functions.   

Second, we need to improve our understanding of cultures.

The annual People Survey gives us the headlines, but to change what it’s like to work in the Civil Service we must dig deeper. There are already several pilots underway in departments to develop new techniques for how we diagnose, describe and develop our cultures, putting a bit of structure and data around the question of ‘what it’s like to work around here’. That way we can develop stronger actions to build inclusion, built on an evidence-based approach.

Third, with my fellow Permanent Secretary D&I Champions, I’ll be making even more effort to listen to those for whom the traditional diversity and inclusion agenda just hasn’t yet been enough.

Many of us have benefited from reverse-mentoring over the years. But individual conversations aren’t enough. We will use the data to prioritise more widespread engagement with those who experience the so-called double- or triple-binds that prevent them from flourishing and progressing in our organisations; and to home in on the big cross-cutting themes.   

Making a difference

One of the great privileges of being Civil Service D&I Champion is getting to meet the many people across departments who really care about this agenda. On a personal level, I find it very motivating and rewarding, and I’m constantly learning new things. I know I’m not the only one to feel this, which is why I am confident that we will make a difference.  

I spoke about inclusion at Civil Service Live in Exeter recently, and look forward to the London events on 16 and 17 July.  If you’d like to get involved, but can’t be at Civil Service Live, do get in touch via

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  1. Comment by Trevor Booth posted on

    I can't say that the 3 priorities are in any way wrong. But I go back to the good old saying 'If you're in a hole - stop digging'. I'd like a priority that we have equal attention on both cause and symptom. Too much D&I related work is focussed on trying to put right what the data tells us has already gone wrong. Instead, we need a keen focus on our people making better and more D&I aware decisions everyday. Sounds obvious but we don't need to fix an issue we haven't created! If we don't make this change those of us who work in D&I will have a job for life - when our ambition is to arrive at a point where our knowledge and expertise are no longer needed.

  2. Comment by Andrew Colski posted on

    You say "whether it’s about race, social class, sexual orientation or disability", but what about age discrimination? Older people (over 50) make up a very large proportion of the civil service, which is growing as retirement age increases. Yet the most experienced people are not always the most valued, with over 50s getting lower performance markings, less likely to succeed in job applications (level transfer as well as promotion) and are consequently more likely to have their pay frozen for many years if they have reached the top of the payscale for a grade they cannot get out of. Please don't forget that age is another source of discrimination and unconscious bias that affects many civil servants.

  3. Comment by Alyson Storr posted on

    I stumbled across your blog Melanie; glad I did.
    Not before time that we have a very passionate person dealing with this topic. My only disappointment was that you do not use the word hope. Without this I feel we still have a long way to go. We do not live in a black and white world, yet guidance is still used in this way- and hard fact rather than guidance. Complex needs, mental health and domestic abuse should be talked about at every opportunity, to make it 'as common as the cold' (c)
    Will you be visiting offices on the ground as Sir Robert Devereux did in the past?
    I wish you well and hope your agenda moves forward timeously.

  4. Comment by Tim Barnsley posted on

    It's good to see that social class is now being recognised as part of Diversity & Inclusion, Melanie. The idea in recent years that "we are all middle class now" does not reflect reality for many people.

    I hope that you will also be able to look at social class in isolation, and not only in the context of those suffering from double- or triple-binds.

  5. Comment by Martyn Mellis posted on

    Thank you for an interesting blog Melanie.

    Speaking to male colleagues / friends in the autumn of their careers I can hear and see they are less engaged than before. I do hope this will be on your radar. These colleagues have achieved and given so much over the years but now seem despondent.

    If we are not careful these men will soon experience how women felt; sidelined and facing barriers they may struggle to overcome.

    Is it now time to have a Cross Government Men’s Network or perhaps rebrand the Women’s Network to a Gender Network?

  6. Comment by Sami Rahman posted on

    Congrats Melanie!

  7. Comment by Viki Page posted on

    Thank you for your blog.

    I would like to ask if, on that note, there is an overarching Inclusion & Equality CS Cross-government Staff Network. From the list of the existing networks, it seems that they are all quite specific.

    Regarding double- or triple-binds, I would like to draw your attention to those, and especially mature women, from 'invisible' minorities, such as Eastern Europeans. Although white, these women are minority ethnic, but they are very unrepresented in policies and promotion. They remain overqualified for the roles they are encouraged to do in the CS and, as a result, underpaid.

  8. Comment by Nuzhat ALI posted on

    Congratulations Melanie on your new role.
    Thank you for laying out your 3 priority commitment areas in your very interesting blog.
    I read with interest and can relate to your third priority "...more effort to listen to those for whom the traditional diversity and inclusion agenda just hasn’t yet been enough...."
    Being a visible Muslim, BAME female, experiencing on a daily basis, what you refer to, it's heartening to hear that this is one of your 3 priorities.
    In your blog you omitted Faith and Belief, I do hope that you will be championing this as part of your DI Champion role ?

  9. Comment by Debbie Pennington posted on

    Melanie congratulations on your new role!
    I do believe that all of our staff networks have had and continue to have in supporting and working in our departments to make things better for all staff of all grades and abilities. The networks work is mostly done on top of busy day jobs by individuals who wish to make a difference (and do!). A common framework would be great.
    I look forward to working with you going forward
    Debbie Break the Stigma - Home Office - 2MS

  10. Comment by Kevin posted on

    Congratulations Melanie, this is a great blog and hopefully your appointment will lead to departments only paying lip service, or tunnel visioned D&I

  11. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Congratulations Melanie on taking up this new role. Thank you for sharing with us your personal experience and reflections concerning diversity and inclusion.

    I would certainly like to commend the fantastic work that the Staff Associations / Network have been doing to challenge discrimination, seek to change behaviour and attitude and ensure that we have a working environment in which colleagues can be authentic and feel that they are respected.

    With the Foreign and Commonwealth, ALL of the Staff Associations have been proactive and have helped to make the Organisation become more inclusive both in the UK and on the Overseas Global Platform.

    I absolutely support the initiative of having in place a framework of common diversity and inclusion standards that can be shared across Departments.

    I wish to the best of luck in your new D&I role.

  12. Comment by Robert Fagg posted on

    Thank you for this blog, really great and inspiring read. It’s clear that you’re really passionate about this, looking forward to seeing how it all turns out. For anyone interested I’m involved with Civil Service Local’s North West D&I Network and we’re running a cross Civil Service event on 25th September in Salford for BAME and disabled staff, although all are welcome regardless of ethnicity and ability. We’re trying to reach out to as many departments as possible so if anyone’s interested or wants any further information just let me know.

  13. Comment by Cecilia Da Forno posted on

    Thank you very much for writing this - it is a hopeful and yet pragmatic read.
    I absolutely agree that data (qualitative and quantitative) is crucial to underpin any sustained and effective action.
    My particular interest is in fostering inclusion for those with poor mental health and I am honoured to be able to do this as a MH Champion for the Fast Stream and Early Talent team in Cabinet Office. However, I absolutely agree that we all need to look at the wider picture, examine our existing team cultures and ensure they are truly inclusive for all.
    I wish you all the best in your work - you are an inspirational role model -
    and will get in touch with the team to look at possible opportunities for collaboration.

  14. Comment by Paul Haughton MBE posted on

    Very welcome and inspiring read and really encouraging to hear your recognition of the importance of staff networks. Having been the Chair of a staff network in the past I know how committed network officials are and, given the chance, the crucial part they can play in supporting the changes we all want to see. But a change in approach to the support (resource, time, funding) given to staff networks is needed if we are to really make the most of staff networks and these committed individuals, who too often do this work in addition to their full-time day job. A Civil Service 'Minimum Support Standard for Staff Networks' might be a valuable addition to our commitment to D&I in the Civil Service.

  15. Comment by Cathy Francis posted on

    Let’s start with the data, like we would with any other policy priority. Thank you.

    There’s lots of support for this work in all corners of the service. How do we come together to share stories, successes and learning?

  16. Comment by Dr Jaswinder Kaur posted on

    Congratulations and welcome into your new role, Melanie! It was great meeting you at the Windrush Event at the Marsham Street.

    I appreciate your priorities of having a framework of D&I standards for all and benchmarking it across departments, understanding and inclusion of other cultures, and listening to individual stories.

    We at the Ethnic Minority Network (EMN) at Defra have initiated and implemented some of similar actions since September 2018 to evident inclusion of ethnic minorities. I would be happy sharing our experiences and lessons to support progress of your priorities.

    I would recommend creating a forum of all network chairs where we can create an action plan together and bring you up to speed with evidence based progress.

    I would be more than happy to join you in making our Civil Service best at D&I.

  17. Comment by Helen Nix posted on

    Interested to hear more about the culture pilots: we’re looking at our culture as a means of promoting inclusion and I’d like to factor in emerging best practice.

  18. Comment by Stephen Davies posted on

    Very interesting read and your personnel story demonstrates that you have first hand experience of how somethings have changed for the better but there is still a long way to go for some protected characteristics to be on the same level as their colleagues.

    I welcome your appointment and wish you all the best.

  19. Comment by Marissa Desoysa posted on

    Thank you for a great blog. I would like to make contact with you and your team on behalf of the work we have started through DWP Summer School on Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination.
    Many thanks

  20. Comment by Catherine Surtees posted on

    This is a welcome read.

  21. Comment by Ruel Cole posted on

    Without prejudice
    Hello Melanie Dawes,
    I have read you blog hence why my comment, I hope you will enjoy your role as Diversity and Inclusion Champion for the civil service. As a Windrush generation pioneer child, a D&I officer and a BAME civil servant, in my opinion I think it’s exceedingly important that senior management are all focused and dedicated when it comes to D&I within the working environment and not see it as just another tick box. The civil service has a very bad reputation when it comes to equality, and D&I etc. The world is changing very fast and the United Kingdom (UK) have seen a number of changes since the second world war, so we now have a diverse community and work force. It is very important that to overcome barriers and bring about changes within the civil service for senior managers to address the issues regarding underrepresented groups. We have a long way to go, and I would very much like to see the civil service to take the lead when it comes to D&I and to be the UK number one inclusive employer year after year.

  22. Comment by Chris Weeks posted on

    As close to a perfect blog as I've read - clarity, conviction and commitment throughout. Thank you.

  23. Comment by Ross Woodward posted on

    Thank you for a great blog. I’m inspired by what you have to say and hope we can take a more joined up approach across the Civil Service; share existing best practice; and ensure our Permanent Secretaries are not only held to account but are empowered to drive this forward as core business and not merely a nice to have if time allows.

    As you allude to, staff networks are a powerful agent in driving forward change and representing the voice of minority groups. I welcome your emphasis on consultation with staff networks.

    Thank you for showing so much passion and commitment to improving D&I across the Civil Service.