‘How could you work for these people? Do you not remember what they did to us?’
This was the reaction from some people when I announced that I was joining the British Diplomatic Service in 2002. The ones who knew what diplomacy was questioned my loyalties and wondered whether someone with an Indian background was even allowed to apply. There was an unspoken belief that this was a career for ‘them’ and not for ‘us’.
I don’t ever remember discussing a career in the government with my family or friends. Looking back, the career conversations around our dinner table were fairly narrow – dentistry, medicine, accountancy or law. We certainly didn’t discuss working in the Diplomatic or Intelligence Services. I don’t even remember them being mentioned at school.
Yet, after nearly 16 years in government, the last three as a Senior Intelligence Officer at GCHQ – the UK’s Signals Intelligence Agency – I can say with no hesitation that I could not have been happier with the choices I have made. It has been a privilege to serve in the Foreign Office and in GCHQ, and to play a small part in promoting our values and protecting the UK.
I feel that I am in a unique position to talk about why the Foreign Office and the Intelligence Services should be more appealing to people from a minority background and what we should be doing to encourage more people to break the mould.
For me, a diverse Diplomatic Service, drawing on our Commonwealth heritage, gives us unparalleled advantages in safeguarding the UK’s security and building our prosperity. I have seen for myself on postings to Iraq, Uganda and Malaysia that my Indian background has enabled me to develop unique, influential relationships. My colleagues from other ethnic backgrounds say similar things. Of course, I have also occasionally experienced prejudice but more often than not my heritage has opened, rather than closed, doors.
I also believe that UK foreign policy will connect more effectively with minority communities in the UK if these communities can see that there are British Ambassadors from minority backgrounds who are proud to represent their country.
The Foreign Office has made great strides over the last few years in reaching out to minority candidates through initiatives like the annual university roadshow which targets students from minority backgrounds. 24% of its Graduate Fast Stream intake in 2017 was from a minority background – one of the highest figures in government.
GCHQ’s role is to keep the country safe from terrorist threats, cyber attacks, and the actions of hostile states. We also have a responsibility to help to make the UK the safest place to live and work online. My time at GCHQ has spanned the intense period following the horrific terrorist attacks across the UK last year. I will never forget the atmosphere in our headquarters the day after the Manchester Arena attack: a mixture of great sadness that this had happened and a determination to double our efforts to prevent future atrocities.
This difficult time showed that the threats we face are changing and our efforts need to be even more innovative and dynamic. This is why diversity matters. A diverse workforce has more success in innovation and encourages new approaches. I am convinced that if we continue to bring in the best people irrespective of their background, gender or race we will stay one step ahead of those who wish to do us harm.
However, recruitment of minority officers into the Intelligence Services is particularly challenging. There are so many falsehoods – some as a result of pop culture (thanks to Mr Bond) and others because of unchallenged myths. These falsehoods may deter ethnic minorities from applying to join MI6, MI5 or GCHQ. Contrary to what some people think, recruits will not be asked to spy on their own community and the Intelligence Services do not work outside of the law.
The Intelligence Services work under one of the most robust oversight regimes in the world. I have no hesitation in saying that the officers I’ve worked with have the highest levels of integrity, professionalism and dedication. The idea of doing things that are not necessary and proportionate is simply abhorrent.
Unfortunately, the Services have seldom had a loud public voice. They have necessarily remained secret to protect the techniques they deploy. But this secrecy can make them inaccessible to minority candidates. Perhaps this explains why these careers are not often discussed with minority students by parents and careers advisors. They simply don’t know what the roles are about or how they can get in.
There has been a concerted effort by the Services to explain who we are, what we do and why we do it. We have to change perceptions and show that we are ordinary people. This is why MI6 recently launched for the first time a TV advert targeted at minority candidates.
In GCHQ, we have focussed heavily on outreach so that more people from minority backgrounds know about us. We have done things over the last two years that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. One ground-breaking initiative was the Minority Report – a BBC Radio4/BBC Asian Network documentary contrasting the views of the community in Bradford with those of serving ethnic minority staff working in our headquarters. Alongside the documentary, I spoke on live radio and took questions from the public – a first for the Services.
We have also launched our DECODED brand. Through this, we give every female and ethnic minority applicant to our major recruitment campaigns an opportunity to visit our HQ. They hear directly from GCHQ staff, including our Director, about the variety of careers on offer and have the opportunity to raise any concerns that they might have about our work or the recruitment process. We want to ensure that the applicants are fully aware that we greatly value diversity in GCHQ and that they will be judged in a fair and transparent process.
Through these initiatives, we have doubled our ethnic minority recruitment in a year and some of our bigger campaigns now have attraction rates of over 15%. This is a start but we know we must do more, particularly to make sure that we improve diversity at our senior grades.
Whilst outreach will help, real change will only come about if we change the conversations that are happening around the dining table, in schools, and in Temples, Mosques and Gurdwaras. I would be delighted if, alongside the conversations about being a doctor or a dentist, we also encourage the next generation to consider a career serving the country. There really is no greater feeling than waking up knowing that what you do today will contribute to a better tomorrow … for all of us.
Nikesh is a Deputy Director at GCHQ. In August 2018, he will rejoin the Foreign Office to become the Deputy British Ambassador to South Korea.