This article was first published in the June 2019 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

There is much more social mobility in the public sector than the private sector. One of the benefits of this greater social mobility is that it increases public trust in government and the state. We know this because of the detailed research that went into the ACCA report, Purpose and the profession: Social mobility and the public sector.

In the past it has sometimes seemed as if reaching the top of the British Civil Service was largely restricted to those with a privileged background who were ‘old boys’ of the great public schools. But in recent years governments have committed to opening up the Civil Service – right to the very top.

‘Social mobility is part of the drive to achieve a more diverse workforce, including socio-economic diversity,’ explains Bernadette Kelly, the Civil Service’s social mobility champion (see panel). ‘We have the objective of being the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020, part of what we call the Brilliant Civil Service programme,’ she adds. ‘Obviously that includes socio-economic diversity.’

Kelly says that because the Civil Service works for the public and employs a huge staff, ‘it’s really important to be a great employer and representative of the public we serve’.

She adds that the Civil Service has been thinking about gender and ethnicity, disability and talent attraction, for some years, ‘but social mobility is something we have begun to think more deeply about more recently’.

Getting the facts right

As with any management initiative, addressing the problem requires it first to be defined. So one of the priority actions being undertaken by the Civil Service is to obtain data that will give it a better understanding of the background of its staff and how diverse the organisation already is. As a result, it has embarked on a large-scale survey, inviting every civil servant to provide personal information on their background and history. This will enable government departments to tailor policies to improve employment access.

The Civil Service already does some things very well in terms of attracting people from a wide variety of backgrounds. ‘We know that there are some areas of the Civil Service that are doing fantastic work in reaching out to schools and universities, and also in geographic cold spots, to ensure that we have variety in the sorts of people we’re attracting,’ says Kelly.

That focus on non-traditional social backgrounds has to include potential enrolment onto fast-track schemes, which are the entry route to the most senior positions. It also involves apprenticeships, which can be used to attract people from diverse backgrounds into the professions.

Over recent decades the Civil Service has made more use of professionals, including the recruitment of qualified accountants. This in itself tends to increase the diversity of the Civil Service, as accounting professionals are less likely to have come through elite universities than would be the case for the more generalist senior civil servants who fill the ranks of the ‘mandarins’.

ACCA’s research again backs this up, finding that finance professionals in government tend to have a high level of social diversity. ‘Those people who consider joining the Civil Service as part of a profession tend to view it through a different lens from those who joined it because they want to be Whitehall mandarins,’ explains Kelly. ‘The accountancy profession and the Big Four firms are doing fantastic work on mobility. We are keen to see where we can learn from what’s been going on in the accountancy sector and from initiatives like theirs.’

The Civil Service is pleased that it is now seen as being more committed to equal opportunity recruitment than some parts of the business world. ‘We embed transparency and fairness into our recruitment process and in our systems for progression in a more consistent way than some private sector organisations, so progression on merit is more likely,’ says Kelly.

‘I’m certainly not going to claim massive success, but there is a kind of interest and enthusiasm in the subject across the Civil Service. I feel as if we are tapping into something.

‘I really am pleased we will be gathering data across all our employees. Very few employers can say they are doing this. And we have had eight government departments – the Ministry of Justice has been most successful – in the top 50 of the Social Mobility Employer Index. That is pretty impressive.’ 

Paul Gosling, journalist