Recruiting diverse talent to protect modern Britain

Last Updated: 14 Nov 2016
Nikesh Mehta, a Deputy Director, talks about why we need more BAME staff working in the Intelligence Services.

How GCHQ is improving BAME recruitment?


Nikesh Mehta
©GCHQ 2016

In July, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the parliamentary body responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies – GCHQ, MI5 and SIS - published its annual report.

The report provided a snapshot of diversity in the three Agencies. When viewed in isolation, these figures make stark reading: the intelligence agencies are not gender-balanced and do not fully represent the ethnic make-up of modern Britain,particularly at the senior grades.

As one of the few senior officials from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background in the intelligence services, I read the report with a heavy heart. I was disappointed because the report could not, for understandable reasons, explain in detail the underlying reasons for the statistics. And didn't highlight the progress made over the last few years to recruit and develop staff from BAME backgrounds. I was also disappointed because, despite some of the challenges we face, we are making progress. Even if that progress isn't always visible externally.

Why does it matter? The intelligence services have been tasked with a tough but crucial mission: to keep Britain safe from the terrorists, criminals and others who wish to do harm to us, our communities and the values we hold dear.

This is not a new mission – we have had this task for over 100 years. We have known from the outset that we need talented, diverse individuals with a broad range of skills to combat the complex threats we face. This was true in the Second World War when people like Alan Turing were successful by thinking differently and challenging assumptions – and it is true now. We recognise that valuing diversity is not just a moral obligation. It is business critical.

Our Director, Robert Hannigan, eloquently set this out at April’s Stonewall Workplace Conference: ‘To do our job, which is solving some of the hardest technology problems the world faces for security reasons, we need all talents and we need people who dare to think differently and be different...Dull uniformity would completely destroy us.’

What are the issues?

So why have we struggled to attract the best BAME graduates and what have we done about it?

As you would expect from GCHQ, we have analysed the data!

This suggested that we aren’t well known, including in minority communities. This is perhaps not surprising given that the secrecy of our work is crucial to our success. There was also a belief that we only wanted to recruit BAME graduates for their linguistic skills.  Whilst we do want talented linguists, the truth is that there are numerous career paths available at GCHQ. We are just as interested in BAME graduates with a gift for computer programming, data analysis, accountancy or HR.

Our research indicated that our location in Cheltenham might also be a factor. Unlike most Civil Service departments, our main office is not in a diverse, urban metropolis like London or Manchester. This might put some people off. Having based myself in Cheltenham, my counter-argument would be that it is a fantastic place to live, with excellent schooling, low crime rates and the Cotswolds on its doorstep. And if you’re looking for a diverse city experience, Birmingham and Bristol are closer than the commute from most London suburbs to Westminster, and plenty of our staff live in those cities.

What are we doing to improve?

We know we need to get better at explaining what we do (as opposed to how we do it) and what we offer our recruits.

We need to appeal directly to prospective applicants and to tell them about the opportunities here to make a real difference to society.

And we need to tell them about the culture in GCHQ, where you are given early responsibility, challenging projects, unique opportunities and the access to world-leading professional development.

We have already started this process with passion and determination.

This year, for the first time, we ran an initiative called ‘GCHQ-Decoded’. We invited all of the female and BAME applicants for our two main recruitment campaigns to a familiarisation event. The events were an opportunity for applicants to hear directly from GCHQ staff, including our Director, about the variety of careers on offer and to raise any concerns that they might have about our work or the recruitment process. We wanted to ensure the applicants were fully aware that we greatly valued diversity in GCHQ and that they would be judged in a fair and transparent process. The full impact of ‘Decoded’ will take time to analyse but the feedback from participants was extremely positive. We will be running the initiative again after the autumn recruitment rounds.

We are also planning to take 'Decoded' on the road so that we can engage in person with students in universities which regularly produce high academic results.

It’s not just university students or graduates that we’re reaching out to. Over the summer, GCHQ ran cyber schools in four locations across the country. The aim was to improve the students’ understanding of cyber security, as well as GCHQ’s role in keeping Britain safe from cyber attack. 175 students took part, and a third of the intake was female, a significant achievement in a field which has traditionally been dominated by men.

We are conscious that our efforts to become more representative of modern Britain can't stop at the recruitment stage. We are working with colleagues in the other Agencies to develop talent pipelines to help minority staff reach their potential. Our inaugural BAME leadership and development programme was launched just before the summer.

We are also working hard to raise awareness of GCHQ within minority communities. We were delighted to sponsor Rare Rising Stars 2016, celebrating the best black students in the country. And we are very proud to be sponsoring alongside MI5 and SIS the Diverse Company Award at the National Diversity Awards.

We know that there is much more for us to do, that we must sustain our efforts over the long term, and that we must be as transparent about our progress as we can be.  I will personally make efforts to keep those of you who are external to GCHQ updated as new initiatives are launched, whether that's through articles like this, our website, or our new @GCHQ Twitter account.

Nikesh Mehta

A Deputy Director, GCHQ