How will the functional model affect Civil Service diversity networks?

You probably haven’t read this policy paper on the Civil Service’s new functional model. It’s something being implemented in the Civil Service right now; if it works, it poses a lot of new challenges and opportunties for diversity in government.

Towards a functional model for government

“Functional model for more efficient and effective government” was published in 2015 as part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, the government’s “continuing programme of reform” to make the Civil Service “more economic and provide faster services to the public”. John Manzoni — the Chief Executive of the Civil Service — loves talking about it and how the Civil Service is moving towards functions and professions.

The functional model emphasises the importance of specialism-based leadership across departments, as well as programme leadership inside departments. It’s not an alien concept to the private sector, but it is relatively novel in government because each of the 24 core ministerial departments are seperate legal entities in their own right with their own corporate functions. With rare exception (like the Shared Services programme) the Civil Service isn’t very used to relying on other departments for its delivery. Government likes its vertical silos; the functional model threatens them existentially.

Taken to its logical conclusion the functional model will mean many civil servants feel a strong association not only to their department (“I work for the Department of Magic”) and their programme (“I’m working on the Magic Wand Registration Service”) but also to their function and profession (“I work in communications”). Civil servants should — at least in theory — look to their left and right, to their peers in their function and profession, as much as they do to their peers in their department and programme.

Diversity activity in the Civil Service

Being a diverse and inclusive employer is one of the Civil Service’s strategic priorities. There has been an ever-increasing focus on this area in the last couple of years — particularly after the publication of the Talent Action Plan, and subsequent Civil Service commissioned reports that highlight the barriers to inclusion for people with diverse backgrounds in the Civil Service — like women, BME, disabled and LGBT people.

For the first time, all Permanent Secretaries across the Civil Service have explicit performance objectives to improve diversity and inclusion in their departments. Many of them also have some element of cross-government objective to do the same — including John Manzoni and Sue Owen.

Despite the attention from across the Civil Service, the people doing the most to make the Civil Service a diverse and inclusive employer tend to be doing it on a voluntary basis; specifically, through employee diversity networks.

The structure of government’s employee diversity networks is a mirror of the departmental structure of the Civil Service itself. Departments have networks to deal with domestic diversity, and — more often than not — there is a voluntary entity that acts as a cross-government network, joining up those domestic groups.

If the functional model increasingly encourages civil servants to associate with their function and profession, the focus for diversity activity will increasingly be about functional and professional diversity too; having a set of diverse departments doesn’t necessarily create diverse functions.

It’s not difficult to imagine the emergence of functional diversity networks that sit alongside existing departmental and cross-government networks.

Characteristics of a functional network

We haven’t seen any functional networks emerge yet; but when they do, what will they look like?

A functional network will likely need to meet the needs of civil servants across multiple departments. It wouldn’t necessarily be led from one department, though it might be resourced from a functional ‘centre’ — like CCS for the commercial function, or GDS for the digital function.

They would likely be one network for everyone in their profession across departments — networks for all women in commercial, all BME people in HR, or all LGBT people in digital. In this way, they’ll be more like communities of interest than networks-of-networks like traditional cross-government networks; this will be a natural consequence of their more limited size and scope inside any one department.

These networks probably won’t focus on domestic departmental issues; instead looking for cross-cutting areas to make the Civil Service more diverse and inclusive. They’ll have closer ties with other functional networks than they do with domestic departmental networks as a result.

Implications for departmental networks

Departmental networks are one of the primary mechanisms through which staff across the Civil Service raise issues to their department’s senior management. For most departments, it’s unlikely that would change because of functional networks arising.

Functional networks will likely have a ‘home’ in one department. The temptation will be, I suspect, for domestic networks to try and adjunct functional networks — to turn them into sub-sets of the bigger whole. It’s not obvious that this is the right thing to do, despite the temptation. Functional networks will exist to meet the needs of a different set of users from domestic networks.

Where they co-exist in one department, departmental and functional networks are going to need clear remits and responsibilities — such as departmental networks being responsible for domestic policy issues that cut across all functions, and functional networks dealing with issues that affect their community across government.

The relationship between the two will also need careful consideration. Both sets of networks will need to be conscious of collective action failure — where no one acts because people assume it’s not part of their remit — and multi-organisational sub-optimisation — where, in effect, too many cooks spoil the broth.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new territory. The new corporate Fast Stream structure has seen all new entrants to the scheme being recruited by one department (HMRC) and deployed across any central government organisation that wants some emergent talent. The Fast Stream has diversity networks akin to these functional networks.

The difference between the Fast Stream networks and these new functional networks will be in how they work to influence the Civil Service to make it a more diverse and inclusive place to work.

All fast streamers are being employed by a single department; their issues are more likely to be shared issues relating to policy of the one department that owns their contracts. They need only represent their interests to one department.

Functional networks won’t have that luxury — the policies that apply to their communities aren’t set from one place. Each department sets its own rules; the functions will likely set standards from the centre, but the experience from one department to the next will be at the whim of each department, its individual HR strategies and policies, and ultimately it’s desire to adhere to central standards. Necessarily, diversity in a function — compared with a department — will be inordinately more complex.

Relationship with cross-government networks

How functional networks interact with the existing cross-government diversity networks is less clear because both will have an explicit cross-government focus.

Existing cross-government networks are used to acting as a central function that join up activity between departmental networks. Most departmental networks don’t act with cross-government intent, and so the remit and responsibilities of each network is well understood.

In many ways, the relationship of cross-government networks with functional networks might be no different than they are with departmental networks. In fact, it may help to clarify the role of cross-government networks.

Cross-government networks can likely continue to act as the coordination point between networks — but now they would act to coordinate more work. The role of the existing cross-government networks will evolve from responding to aggregated departmental need, to aggregated functional and departmental need.

Cross-government networks will also be uniquely placed to identify and act to resolve coordination failure and multi-organisational sub-optimisation problems.

Towards a functional model for diversity

The emergence of functions is going to test the status quo for delivering diversity activity in the Civil Service. The real challenge for existing diversity networks as functions emerge will be in identifying what activity is best delivered by them, compared to their functional counterparts.