The MJ: The Diversity Challenge

How can council workforces become more diverse, especially at the top? A group of senior local government directors and chief executives debated the diversity challenge at a roundtable debate hosted by The MJ and Green Park. Michael Burton reports:

Whatever local government’s claim to be open-minded in its recruitment processes the stark fact remains that the number of council chief executives from a black and minority ethnic background can be counted on one hand and the numbers are worse than 20 years ago. Is this due to covert racism, a problem with the pipeline of talent or a lack of interest by black and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates in working at the top in the public sector?

A group of council chiefs and directors discussed the reasons as part of a wider round table debate held recently at the offices of recruitment firm Green Park on diversity, covering ethnicity, gender and disability.

A quick vox pop round the table gauged the current status of participants’ councils on diversity with all saying it was a priority but making it happen was more difficult especially in middle management.

One said: ‘We feel we’re representative of our community though diversity is less pronounced as we go up the hierarchy. Our focus is how do we get more BAME people into jobs over £45,000.’ Another commented: ‘We’ve got a diverse workforce at frontline level but need to develop staff to understand why diversity is important.’ A debater added: ‘There are 2,200 FTEs in my authority which has a black chief executive, a black s151 officer, a gay mayor. We’ve embraced diversity but it’s not right through the organisation.’

One comment was: ‘Over the past 10 years we haven’t focused on the workforce. The private sector has overtaken us.’

But as another participant said: ‘There isn’t a silver bullet and the subject goes in the too difficult box.’ A director added: ‘Local government needs to ask itself whether its culture is resistant to true diversity. The point is not to do painting by numbers but to have different outlooks and perspectives. Does it really want to embrace diversity or just have the same versions but in a skirt or with a brown skin?’

Another comment was: ‘Organisations have invested in fantastic BAME programmes but there’s no follow on.’

One participant said there was ‘tick-boxing’ but no long-term commitment, adding: ‘There’s a lot of investment money and time that goes into the stats for diversity however often they’ve not looked at the follow through for the future, or perhaps not investigated sufficiently before taking measures for change. There’s rarely any tracking of the changes before the issues are dropped again. There’s a misunderstanding of positive action in the industry. Data collection is important and is readily available however there’s no details of action as a result of the data or the root cause.’ Another said: ‘People are scared to talk about race.’

One participant said there was lots of lip service paid to diversity without obvious impact, adding: ‘Local government doesn’t perform particularly well with other sectors. Local government worries more and achieves less.’

In order to increase the number of BAME directors and chief executives councils must either ‘build or buy’ as one participant said though another commented: ‘We can poach from one another. If we’re building, it takes time. If we’re buying, where from?’ If building, a pipeline of talent needs to be developed and often councils are not the top of the list of career choices for young people. As one participant said: ‘We are a rigid sector with little flexibility. We’re dated. We are holding ourselves back on the lack of HR creativity’

Another added: ‘Could we do more in terms of local government in schools? Should we look to give encouragement to consider local government opportunities?’

One participant pointed out that their council found ‘under-representation of Bangladeshis in the workforce because many were under 30 and wanted to work elsewhere in other occupations’.

The debate was ostensibly about diversity in its wider sense covering age, gender and disability as well as ethnicity but it was the last which provoked most discussion. Watch out for future round tables on age, gender and disability issues in the workforce.

The MJ / Green Park round table delegates:

Karen Grave, president PPMA

Ian Thomas, chief executive, Lewisham LBC

Meena Kishinani, transformation director, Barking & Dagenham LBC

Jo Brown, director of HR and OD, Camden LBC

Manjeet Gill, interim chief executive, Wokingham BC

Mark Grimley, director of corporate services, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC

Lee Witham, director of HR, Westminster City Council

Naomi Cooke, head of workforce, Local Government Association

Neil Lupin, managing partner, Green Park

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the board, Green Park

Jo Heath, head of diversity and inclusion practice, Green Park

Raj Tulsiani, chief executive, Green Park

Michael Burton, The MJ (chair)

This article was published in The MJ on the 26 of July 2018. To subscribe and read The MJ, please click here.