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Message from the top: diversity delivers in the workplace

My predecessor as head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, was a true champion of diversity. His legacy on this issue is one I intend to build on, and why I was particularly proud that last week the Summer Diversity Internship (SDI) programme won the best diversity in work experience award, part of the national placement and internship awards 2012.

The programme is aimed at black and minority ethnic university students and those from lower socio-economic groups. Interns spend about two months in one of the major government departments, where they enjoy a unique insight into the work of the civil service.

It is programmes such as these that demonstrate the service's commitment to bringing in, and bringing on, the most talented people from different backgrounds. We recognise that we need to make the most of the insights, experiences and innovative ideas that an inclusive workforce can bring to develop and deliver important public services to a diverse population. Also, we should be seen as leading the way in diversity and demonstrating to other organisations across the public and private sectors the huge benefits that having a diverse workforce can have.

This is why we introduced the SDI programme more than 10 years ago. So far, we have had well over 1,000 interns take part in this programme with more than 100 interns, in the past four years alone, going on to join the Fast Stream graduate talent programme.

One of those successful candidates is Roxanne Ohene who was an intern on the SDI programme over the summer of 2002, where she worked in the Department for Education and Skills (now the Department for Education) in the ICT Schools Directorate. As a result of her experience, Roxanne successfully applied to the Fast Stream. Roxanne's first post was in the Home Office where she undertook a variety of roles. She then spent two and half years in the prime minister's Delivery Unit. Roxanne is currently assistant director in the permanent secretary's delivery team in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), which supports the department on urgent reputational and organisational challenges, helping BIS achieve its strategic priorities.

The internship programme was designed to provide an awareness of the range of opportunities across the service and to encourage under-represented groups to think about the civil service as an employer of choice. Above all, the success of the programme rests on providing hugely fulfilling experiences, providing a spring board to permanent positions, and offering young people a strong career pathway, even in a difficult economic climate.   

The SDI programme is integral to the overall Whitehall internship programme, which comprises three complementary internship schemes designed for graduates and undergraduates, college students and secondary students who come from under-represented groups. The internships fully support the government commitment to ensure that every Whitehall department has interns from under-represented groups and backgrounds. The civil service diversity strategy also aims to embed action on diversity into all aspects of its business, which is why we continue to hold permanent secretaries to account for their department's performance on diversity.

Diversity leads to improved service delivery, a talented and engaged workforce and a strong reputation across both the public and private sectors, and our continued commitment to it is paying off. The percentage of civil servants reported to be from minority ethnic backgrounds has increased by more than half since 1999, from 5.6% to 9.2%1 in March 2011. The proportion of women in the senior civil service has more than doubled since 1996 and representation of disabled staff has improved over the past decade, with the percentage of civil servants reported to have a disability increasing from 3.1% in 2001 to 7.7%2 in March 2011.

We want to continue to attract and develop talented individuals who are from all parts of society and recognise the importance of and need for schemes, such as the SDI programme, to ensure we reflect increasingly diverse populations. There is still a lot more work that can be done but the service is leading the way by putting diversity at the heart of everything we do.

Sir Bob Kerslake is head of the civil service

This article is published by Guardian Professional. Join the Guardian Public Leaders Network free to receive regular emails on the issues at the top of the professional agenda.

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