Earlier this year my cohort of Patchworkers and I were informed that we would be having our second Masterclass session with Bernadette Kelly CB, current Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport since 2017. Having researched Permanent Secretary Bernadette beforehand and learnt about the barriers she broke down as a working-class woman originally from Birmingham to reach her current position in a historically middle-class, male, and Londoner dominated space, I was incredibly excited to meet her and I was not disappointed. The Masterclass session was held at the exact same time I was wrapping up my English degree, so it was a great excuse to take a break from staring at my dissertation. Permanent Secretary Bernadette and I had a laugh about my topic when I told her it was focused on the representation of redheads in literature (both being redheads ourselves), and she showed a genuine interest as a English graduate herself from the University of Hull. After this initial conversation, I witnessed first-hand how approachable and relatable she is, helping to demystify and debunk my worries about working for the government myself.
On Social Mobility: Permanent Secretary Bernadette is currently one of the social mobility champions within the Civil Service, and has worked in the past with the Social Mobility Commission (an advisory non-departmental public body of the Department for Education in England). She was really keen to discuss this aspect of her identity and her passion for the cause with my fellow Patchworkers and I. She told us about the struggles she has seen during her three-decades of service when it comes to class, such as seeing Northern and Midlands’ colleagues soften their accents and being nervous to give presentations because of an embedded lack of confidence at the start of the career. She even asked us to share our own thoughts on social mobility and what we would like to see being done in the Civil Service that will attract more young people from underrepresented backgrounds to join. Permanent Secretary Bernadette really brought home the idea that the Civil Service does not want a group of cookie cutters – diversity leads to diverse actions that are needed to represent the population served.
On Job Mobility: Permanent Secretary Bernadette also shared details about her journey through various departments and job roles in her career, such as HM Treasury, Number 10, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. She talked about working through turbulent times and plain patches, and how work and the workplace culture shifts accordingly, with each department being unique in their own strategic objectives and their ways of working towards them. She also touched on the importance of personal capital and networking, and how connections can still be utilised even when switching over to another department, which built on the advice that has been given at other Patchwork sessions. One particular piece of advice that stood out to me whilst she was discussing leadership, was that as somebody in the Civil Service becomes more senior, it becomes less about how great they are at their job and more about how great they can encourage their team to be.
Overall, the Masterclass session with Permanent Secretary Bernadette was very insightful and I left having learnt a lot more about the Civil Service than I did previously, particularly what day-to-day life is like for somebody in a senior position. I saw aspects of myself and my own background reflected in her, which is so important for being able to find role models as a fresh graduate quite daunted by the competitive job market ahead. I am looking forward to the future Masterclass sessions that Patchwork has lined up for us.
Written by Tiegan Bingham-Roberts, 2021 Masterclass Programme Participant