Rob Neil OBE has over 35 years’ experience in the public sector. The founding member of the Ministry of Justice’s BAME staff network, called PROUD, he was the first elected Chair of the Civil Service Race Forum in 2001, and is a Diversity and Inclusion leader. He was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List for services to race equality in the workplace and the community. Rob has also been a Trustee with RELATE for ten years, and was one of the founding members of The Reach Society, a Community Interest Company which encourages, supports and inspires young people on their journey from education into employment. Keep The Faith caught up with Rob to find out more about this amazing race and diversity champion…
Keep The Faith (KTF): Tell us about where your story begins.
Rob Neil (RN): I was born in May 1964 in Paddington, London, to Jamaican parents, both of whom travelled 5,000 miles in support of rebuilding Britain. My mum had ambitions to train as a nurse, but my arrival within a year, followed 19 months later by my younger brother, encouraged a change of plan and lifestyle. My dad was a skilled carpenter and he found work immediately.
My early childhood was full of extended family gatherings, delicious food, and a total focus on school – my mother never missed a single Parents Evening. My dad was a very charismatic man – he passed away in 2017, having returned to Jamaica in 1990 – who could make anyone and everyone laugh. However, he wasn’t very disciplined when it came to finances, and his habit of gambling away his hard-earned wages led to my parents separating when I was nine. We moved in with my aunt in Wembley, and shared the same bedroom until I turned 15. My mum then applied for and secured a two-bed property nearby in Harlesden, where we lived for the next ten years. Today, I live in Wealdstone with my wife – we married in 1990 – and our two children.
KTF: When you were a young man, did you have a specific career path you wanted to follow?
RN: My earliest ambition was to be a professional footballer. Unfortunately, whilst I loved football (and still do), the truth is I was never good enough to play professionally. I realised this early on, and as a young man my first realistic job ambition was to be a police officer. I remember completing a project on community policing, which included a week-long experience, shadowing an officer in Wembley, which I will NEVER forget!!!
KTF: You have dedicated 35 years to the public and voluntary sectors. What has been your proudest achievement?
RN: I have enjoyed a career filled with many wonderful moments and have formed a variety of lifelong friendships with people who have encouraged, supported and inspired my career. One of my proudest achievements was my leading role in designing, creating and launching the Ministry of Justice’s first Black staff network, PROUD, which stands for People from diverse Racial Origins Uniting the Department. PROUD took one year to design, and launched in May 2001 when over 500 staff from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – including our CEO and the Permanent Secretary – attended the Commonwealth Institute in London.
KTF: Tell us about your current role. How did this come about?
RN: My current role at the Department for Education came about after I graduated from an internal two-year Civil Service Future Leadership Programme. I had spent time with some wonderful fellow civil servants, developing my leadership capability and reflecting on my career. I was assigned a mentor and a sponsor, both of whom encouraged me to consider applying my skills in another department. I listened to that advice and focused on what I knew I enjoyed doing: identifying creative ways in which colleagues can work together to improve their experience at work, and ended up at the DfE as Head of Embedding Culture Change. In short, my job is to measure the impact of the DfE’s aims, and this includes the extent to which we meet the needs of those we serve, eg. schools, universities, teachers, students and the staff here at the DfE.
KTF: As a Black man, what challenges have you overcome in your public sector roles?
RN: As a Black man, working in the UK’s public sector for over three decades, I have faced both overt and subtle forms of racism. I have been deliberately overlooked when opportunities for exciting new roles were being allocated. I have had negative assumptions made about my competence, and I have had my personal values questioned by others exhibiting their own bias. I have worked hard to overcome these biases, often leaning on my faith to pull me through. I have also learnt about the incredible power of staff networks, ie. forming professional relationships with like-spirited individuals, and working collectively to both combat and dismantle discrimination in the workplace. Over the years, I have used my own growing experience to support others, and have learnt how to lead such networks to build sustainable and business-critical entities capable of improving individual experiences and organisational performance.
KTF: Do you find that faith plays a role in your work or perspective on life? And if so, how?
RN: As an experienced and long-serving civil servant, I am often invited to share the story of my journey with others, and I speak about my ‘Five Fs’:
- Faith – my active relationship with the living God
- Family – my nearest and dearest, who ‘get’ me
- Friends – those I choose to spend time with and who edify me
- Function – paid (DfE) and unpaid effort, eg. volunteering in the community
- Fun – following my passions, offering my best, and ensuring nobody steals my joy
KTF: Who inspires you and why?
RN: I am often inspired by a passage in a book, a scene in a movie or a visit to the theatre. For example, I recently saw Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses with my daughter, and that was incredibly inspiring. I am also blessed to have a number of people in my life who inspire me, eg. my Mum and indeed my late Dad continue to inspire me, other family members, and my rich network of friends, including those in my Book Club – we’re called BOOKfriENDS – and especially a number of my former colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, all of whom inspire me to offer my very best on a daily basis.
KTF: How do you actively pursue spiritual growth?
RN: Having studied at Bible College for two years, earlier in my walk with GOD, I continue to consult Scripture on a daily basis, and I am a member of my Christian fellowship at work.
KTF: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
RN: I read, visit the theatre, and I love walking. I enjoy holidays and long weekend breaks with Mrs Neil and our friends. We try to get away at least twice a year. To balance out the fun, I also go to watch my team, Queens Park Rangers FC, in West London at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium (formerly Loftus Road). Watching QPR can be a real challenge, although we have been enjoying an improved start to the current season.
KTF: Finally, share something funny about yourself with our readers!
RN: Over the years I have been mistaken for famous people. When I was younger, it was Ashley Cole, the English footballer. As I got older, it was Oscar-winning actor, Cuba Gooding Jr, and I was even asked to sign an autograph as Craig David. However, the lookalike that really got me thinking was when my own uncle told me I was the dead stamp of the singer, George Michael!!! Now then, whilst I am happy to confess to being a huge fan of his music, I think my uncle’s shout was nothing more than a ‘careless whisper’.