Dazzle and displacement over the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)

Image of Coventry Cathedral’s majestic stained glass windows, which were designed by John Piper and made by Patrick Reyntiens (1962). Caption: My socialising circuits were fried after the Future Leaders Scheme launch event at Coventry Cathedral. I find these things hard (and probably consumed one too many biscuits!). Still, the stained glass windows were rather soothing and I looked at them with reverence.

The Future Leaders Scheme is one of the UK Civil Service’s Accelerated Development Schemes, aimed at high-potential grade 6 and 7 civil servants. You can read my candidate statement, part of my application, here.

Note: This blog post was edited by Sam Villis. Sam — Thank you very much for your notes and thoughts; without you this blog post wouldn’t have been as good.

Tweet from myself: “Well. For a non-conformist, this is most unexpected.” Tweet contains the image of the email acceptance onto the Future Leaders Scheme; it says, “Dear Nour, I am delighted to inform you that you have been successful in your application for the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) 2021 intake.”

Hello dear reader,

I’m feeling the limitations of language as I attempt to weave together a way of making sense of the Future Leaders Scheme. I feel I’m at the margins or borderlands of the scheme, trying hard to properly understand the core. This blog post is a messy, imperfect, and personal reflection. I am sharing it nevertheless.

So, here goes.

Gif of Captain Jim Holden, from The Expanse, saying, “I’m ready to talk.” He has not always been certain about his place in the universe and his background makes it hard for him to understand how the real world works.

“Future Leaders Scheme is building a diverse, robust pipeline to senior roles. You’re part of the high potential, talented civil servants who can get there.”

The four launch events for the Future Leaders Scheme are still rattling around my head. I feel the urge to write something…anything. The four launch events were for:

  • scheme itself;
  • Commercial Function;
  • Cabinet Office (which is technically my ‘home’ department); and,
  • DELTA (Disability Empowers Leadership Talent), for those on the Future Leaders Scheme with a disability and/or long-term health condition.

I felt a combination of fleeting dazzle and lingering displacement — it was as if, at any moment, I might be unmasked as someone who didn’t belong. I have not stopped thinking about this. What had caused the feeling of displacement? I’m accustomed to feeling like I don’t fit in with certain kinds of environments (even when I should do). But the experience of the launch events did not help me escape the uncomfortable feeling that I was invading a space where I was not welcome.

The fallout from them has had my brain churning non-stop for weeks. They seem designed to exaggerate and confirm power, systemic/structural advantages, and confidence, heightening the acute feeling of being the “outsider” (or the glitch in the Matrix). Where they’re held, the people who talk, the language of exclusivity. I thought perhaps my displacement was due to the fact that I did not feel “entitled” or “deserving” — I lacked this sense of having an almost natural right to be there.

I’m told that everyone finds these things hard, but few want to admit it. I imagine it crossed the minds of the others at the launch events that they felt they may not deserve their place there and what it has to offer, somehow unworthy to be there with others in the room. I’m hoping that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

However, the displacement I felt at the launch events was useful. It reminded me to reflect and that I value demystifying these kinds of activities. What actually happens on the Future Leaders Scheme? Maintaining quietness around what actually goes on is a key way to maintaining the exclusivity of the scheme. It’s my hunch that this might be valuable to others; otherwise, I’m just rambling on here and there’s value in that for me, too.

Picture of a white painted rock that says “Make new mistakes” in purple text. Caption: During the Commercial Function launch event, we were given a task to bring an object, word, or picture that represents a special moment in your career or that represents a moral or value that is important to us. DavidBuck gave me a painted rock, so I used that in my introduction. Thank you, David!

Taking the time to reflect and take stock recently has enabled me to see some patterns and themes, or undercurrents, that have shown up in many different ways for me during the launch events. I haven’t found it easy to name these undercurrents, whose presence is sometimes felt rather than seen.

I can only speak from my experience. The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone. Before we start, I will be upfront about a few things. Because we don’t talk about power and resources enough.

I am White, British, and from a high socio-economic background. I went to a good school. I’m university educated, and was not the first in my family to go to university. I have had opportunities and advantages in life. I have been exposed to things that make it easier for me to adapt and fit into places, even where I feel out of place. I have cultural capital which allows me to get on. I understand how grey areas work, even when the rules aren’t obvious, and how to navigate them myself. I obviously very much *am* part of the establishment.

I have held operational and delivery roles, worked in and out of London, represented the UK abroad during a difficult posting, and am a specialist (in a technical and largely inaccessible profession). I have been able to choose roles where I’m hurtling at breakneck speed into the unknown. I have turned down a number of roles I know would have made me miserable.

But, I am female, introverted, and non-conformist. I have a hidden disability that affects my day-to-day life (epilepsy) and take medication; like others with disabilities and/or long-term health conditions, I face challenges in my life that most don’t. I live in a place where the city meets the countryside. I was recently a carer and am still grappling with grief. Also, on the scheme I am in the minority; people from the commercial function on the Future Leaders Scheme this year are not even in double digits, which seems like not nearly enough. I adore learning experiences, and find I learn in many different ways. I care deeply about making public services better. I’m part of One Team Gov.

Caption: My aspiration is to be part of the Senior Civil Service that reforms and leads the Civil Service in a world that doesn’t even yet exist. I’m a proud and passionate civil servant, who intends to forge a new path for public service, or take the first steps of a path with others.

I have not secured ‘accelerator roles’, Fast Stream, or ‘coveted’, high-profile postings that place people on a fast tracked trajectory. I have been advised to do all these things in a calculated way, to play the game and put myself on people’s radars. There’s a wall of internal resistance within me to taking this approach.

I rarely feel confident enough about myself. I struggle with any situation that requires me to ‘sell myself’. I judge myself too much and fall short of my own expectations. I am learning to be compassionate to all the parts of myself, to accept myself as I am. I have had people who believed in me, have reached down to pull me up, helped me navigate the hidden rules, and made time and space for me. They have fed and protected my flame so that it burns brighter and brighter everyday. My heart is full because of them.

I *also* have a discomfort with status and institutions. I have spent time in spaces that have unrelenting pressures to conform in the system and place a premium on doing so (see Diplomatic Service and National Security). I have feelings of ambivalence about my place in the Civil Service, a complex labyrinth to navigate. Some days I am pretty sure I don’t fit anywhere in it. Being in these environments feels like I have to put on a performance all day — and even where I have been quite successful, this has come at personal cost.

From inside a *highly* privileged group of people in the Civil Service, I can be the pebble in the pond. It takes boldness to change things. I remind myself daily of all meaningful ways, big and small, in which I can help others. I’m constantly examining the ways in which I am allowed comfort and the ways I can disrupt that, for myself and others. I can be the person that advocates, sponsors, and amplifies change. I can be a source of energy to others. I can figure out what the informal rules and norms are, and then be explicit about them. I have a seat at the table and it is my responsibility to bring others with me. I will help take the baton a long way forward in public service.

These things, amongst many others, have played their part in making me the person I am today. They have greatly impacted my life and the way I move through all these systems. I’m constantly unpacking myself. And it is with these lenses that I experience the Future Leaders Scheme.

Valuing human connections

The systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.

The scheme has picked out circa 440 people, from over 4,000 that applied, to encourage into senior roles in the Civil Service. Now, there will be people that don’t conform to the stereotype that has been perpetuated over the years about the people that get onto the scheme. Some of the brightest minds in the Civil Service are here. But, I wonder if we may believe there is more diversity than there really is.

We’ll never know who else could have been there, too — and that’s the saddest part. We often overlook the “silent evidence,” considering only the “surviving” applications, without considering those which didn’t succeed. Sometimes, the full picture is obscured because the data you’ve got has survived a selection of some sort.

Gif of Katniss Everdeen, a young teenage girl from District 12, stood on a pillar in the middle of the river with other competitors during the Hunger Games film. She’s a volunteer tribute in Panem’s annual Hunger Games, having taken the place of her younger sister in an act of heroic self-sacrifice.

For me, being on the inside of the scheme is a fundamentally different experience. It seems to replicate for what we know…to reinforce existing hierarchies and power structures, to elevate the voices that are already the loudest. I think few inside the scheme will openly admit this. However, we should be questioning what could be better and how we could design the scheme in a human-centred (or human-connected) way.

Although no one says it out loud, the scheme has a multiplying effect that privileges the already privileged, reinforcing what is already in existence. It provides a means to subtly use an existing network and resources, which is a real currency in the Civil Service and the effects of which cannot be underestimated. Here, certain types of people form bonds that increase their social capital. This is an environment where information circulates — particularly tacit knowledge that is rarely written down about how the Civil Service actually works — and is widely shared.

I’m wondering how far a centralised development scheme can really grip a complex, distributed system. Are an “unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds”, inside and outside Whitehall, making their way through the scheme? Is it possible that there may be a lack of delivery, operational, or technical expertise or cognitive diversity? Will we end up with those at senior levels that are of the same career path and mindset?

Having navigated an elaborate maze to reach the prize of ‘getting in’, it is now unclear to me what it takes to ‘make it’ in the scheme. I’m sure I will soon find out.

Be eclectic

The thing I think about most is power — who has it, how do we redistribute it, and what does that even look like? And there is a propulsive power of being on the scheme. I keep wondering, how does the design reflect the needs of those who are in positions of power? How is this process going to support increasing diversity in the higher reaches of the civil service. What might possibly get in the way of achieving this objective to which we are all, surely, deeply committed…?

Being in places of power and privilege, which only open up my access to spaces of power, requires a constant state of alertness about my own place of privilege. Power and boldness in work go hand in hand. For all the self-awareness I think I have, it is easy to momentarily forget that structurally enabled or embedded advantages can exist in subtle ways, too. It has been deeply uncomfortable to pay attention to something that is latent, implicit, and unspoken. But, without doing this work, I’ll just be perpetuating the systems I’m seeking to shift. I’m trying to make this a consistent practice and part of my life.

Across the launch events there has been emphasis on the networking aspect of all this, for enhancing visibility with senior leaders and network development which I have felt to be somewhat extractive. I’ve personally found I need to do more to build relationships with and among others before I’m ready to have a joint conversation. Part of how I think about facilitated events is that I want to leave an indelible impression of the conversation in people’s minds, and most ‘networking’ sessions aren’t designed to help people meaningfully get to know one another. So, when attending events, I usually head for the biscuits instead.

Gif of Moira Rose, from Schitt’s Creek, saying, “I’M NETWORKING!” I think of this often as Moira is much better at networking that I am.

Language matters

I am interested in the way that language shapes how we understand and interact with things around us. It affects who we include and how we engage with them. What we do not say, what we do not talk about. We use language to categorise, and we place people into these categories. Inside these categories that make it hard to see each other as whole people. You see, diversity and eclecticism cannot properly exist without a language and syntax to sustain it.

In conversations about when and how, it was easy to hear people’s narratives reinforcing the established status quo. Focus has been on individuals (senior and non-senior) and how they have developed their “profile”, with people showcasing themselves. Through focusing on achievements, on overcoming tough problems we focus on a type of extroverted and self-confident leader.

There was also much talk about being true to yourself: “Don’t try to become someone you’re not.” But, that is much easier to say than to do here when the pervading narrative is the above.

Spaces for…what?

Does getting the best from the scheme include redesigning it? Asking for a friend.

Organisations are built of “rules”, which enable and constrain the emergence of particular behaviours. The scheme itself has rules created within it to support the achievement of goals; these rules will constrain particular forms of activity while enabling others. There has so far been little invitation to challenge us to see these rules as permeable (by boundary pushing or rule breaking) and make sense of the scheme in new ways. I think that keeping ourselves and others inside the established rules is less cognitively taxing than the uncertainty that comes with autonomy and self-organisation.

Image of the Future Leaders Scheme launch event at Coventry Cathedral, with a hall filled with people. I’m sat in the back row in the empty chair (closest to the biscuits behind me!), with my leather satchel and holdall underneath.

Spaces for radical creativity, imagination, and boldness are few and far between. These things don’t suddenly occur, they take space, cultivation, practice, and time — perhaps a much longer time frame than we can allow ourselves. And, it is communities that can tend to those things, often with rigour of feeling. I am convinced that to shift the future we need to feel it differently, to go a different way than before to get to a portal in a new dimension. I am wondering if the scheme will be the place to play with new modalities of feeling and imagining.

Because we should constantly be learning and growing. That’s what the reality of all these conversations should look like.

Think Big, Act Small

Tweet by feastsandfables: “Non-conformists are very much needed at the top of the shop to give succour and encouragement to the non-conformists battling away elsewhere in the organisation. Many many congratulations (yellow heart)”

These are only parts of my experience and over time I will undoubtedly share more. To speak has always been a bold act and I’m reminded just how critically important working in the open is.

I’m figuring a lot out as I go. In recent weeks I have started to talk to others about the absence of voices relating to the Future Leaders Scheme, both past and present. I think it is an important gap to fill.

If you do too, I’d love to hear from you.

Mastering the art of disruption in procurement, leadership, and change @MoJGoVUK. Reimagining the future of multifarious possibilities with @OneTeamGov 🌍

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Nour Sidawi

Nour Sidawi

Mastering the art of disruption in procurement, leadership, and change @MoJGoVUK. Reimagining the future of multifarious possibilities with @OneTeamGov 🌍

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