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Data, Information, Stories, Solutions




The UK Civil Service published their workforce data for 2019. While most of the figures are not surprising, it is jarring to see the levels of under-representation of certain groups. For example black people make up about 3.4% of the population and so underrepresented at senior level that they make up only 1.3% of senior civil servants. More importantly, they are proportionately represented at lower grades (3.1%) which suggests they are not enough opportunities for them to be promoted, advanced or recruited to senior positions. 


Highlights from the report 



A few highlights stand out from the report:

  • At lower grades minority ethnic employees are well represented, but not to levels one would expect in proportion to population proportions. 

  • The high levels of Black and Asian at lower grades, especially Executive Officer, suggests stagnation and lack of advancement opportunities. 

  • Minority ethnic groups are severely underrepresented at Senior Civil Servant (SCS) level. Black people are 60% short of the you would expect from a truly representative system. Asians are  40% short of the number that would be expected from a truly representative system.

  • White people are over-represented at Senior Civil Servant level. The proportion of  white SCSs is 12% higher than would be expected from a truly representative system.  

Percentage of civil servants by ethnicit

The diagram above shows the total number of Senior Civil Servants grouped by ethnicity.  There is 4550 white SCS, compared to 200 Asian and 70 black.  To put that into perspective, there are 65 white SCS colleagues to 1 black SCS colleague. 

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The diagram above shows the level of representation at Senior Civil Servant grade for the three main ethnicity groups.  In a fair, representative system, the number should be zero or close to zero for all groups. Black people are the most underrepresented -60%, followed by Asian people -40% and white people are over-represented by 12% . That also means only 12% more white SCS mean take up the positions that would accommodate 60% black SCSs and 40% Asian SCSs. 

What the data suggests and possible solutions

The data on from the government publication and other sources shows and suggests the following:

 The data shows: That the civil service hire ethnic minorities at levels proportionate with and representative of the general population. This suggests that: people of ethnic minorities are as qualified and suited to jobs in the civil service their white counterparts 

The data shows: That as the grades rise, representation falls, with the worst levels of representation at Senior Civil Servant Level. There are also zero black members of cabinet in the UK government. This suggests there are systemic, entrenched biases in the civil service that prevents people from minority ethnic groups from rising to the top level of service service. 

From data produced by government organisations, people from minority ethnic backgrounds overwhelmingly make up the largest proportion of employees who are awarded poor performance ratings. 


  • Fix the performance assessment and monitoring 

  • Fix temporary promotions and hiring for higher grades


Performance Assessments:


While some government departments have already moved away from the annual performance assessment and grading, which saw disproportionately large numbers of black and minority ethnic people getting the worst performance ratings, to a monthly assessment; staff from ethnic minority groups are still widely perceived as the worst performers. In most cases, this is a systemic issue. But a system is made up of people and made by people. That means regardless of the manager's race, ethnic minority people will get the worst performance grades. Here is how it works 

  • There is a long-held perception that ethnic minority people perform poorly. At this point  the origin of the perception is immaterial 

  • Because of the perception, managers (of all colours and races) look out for mistakes and evidence of under or poor performance in their black and ethnic minority staff

  • Because of confirmation bias, when you look for something, you find it. And so they indeed find evidence and they put a lot of weight on such evidence regardless of evidence to the contrary. Confirmation bias of this nature has been proven to be pervasive and notoriously difficult to guard against

  • So the employee gets a poor performance box score, and there is evidence of this "poor performance"

  • Now the data begin to build and and it becomes "self-evident" that the majority of poor performers are indeed from the ethnic minority groups. 

  • So this perpetuates the perception. In fact, it turns the perception into "reality", into 'the truth"

  • And just like that, the cycle goes on and on and on, feeding itself and justifying itself with false data

  • Even if a person from an ethnic minority group become the manager, they will believe they are an exception that proves the rule. And so they will perpetuate the bias because it is now in-built and served as the truth. 

How to break the cycle of bias in performance assessment 

  • First widely and openly acknowledge and teach everyone about this bias 

  • Set up a new radical way - in which you look for the positives and the good. Make a special focus on people from under-represented groups 

  • Make a poor performance the manager's responsibility. If your staff performs poorly, you get a poor performance. You  can set this up such that a manager cannot get two box scores higher than the lowest performer on their team.  For example if you have five performance tiers - poor, must improve, adequate, good, excellent - a manager can only get excellent if the lowest performer on their team is 'good'. If the lowest performer on the team is 'poor', the highest the manager can score is 'must improve'.

Promotions and hiring for senior grades

But the cycle of bias outlined above does not end with poor performance, and disgruntled ethnic minority staff, it greatly affect the rest of their career progression and greatly diminishes their ability to progress to Senior Civil Servant. Here is how the cycle plagues a person of colour/ethnic minority. 

  • They know there is a perception about people like them being poor performers, so they must work extra hard to prove themselves

  • But confirmation bias is a strong force. No matter what they do, their manager focuses on the negatives 

  • They get a poor performance rating 

  • Because they got a poor performance rating despite working extra hard to prove themselves, they are deflated. Their best is clearly not good enough. There is nothing more they can do

  • They stop trying. And because they stop trying, their performance dips and provides further evidence of their shortcomings

  • They can't get promoted or have they names put up for higher grades

  • They don't think they have what it takes to apply for more senior positions. After all, if they are bad at that lower grade, they have no business applying for higher grades 

  • And the cycle goes on...


Some ideas for resolving the lack of ethnic minority people in senior positions

  • Break the cycle as suggested above

  • Set quotas (initially) to increase the number of ethnic minorities in the senior civil service 

  • Set up a cross-government register of illegible (for promotion) staff from ethnic minority groups and make it mandatory that no senior civil servant vacancy can be filled without exhaustively consideration all the candidates on that register 

  • Set targets and report on them quarterly 

  • Increase visibility of senior civil servants

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