While local government has been distracted by austerity, what has happened to diversity? The MJ, Penna and North West Employers asked HR professionals where they were on equality. Heather Jameson reports
When it comes to equality and diversity, local government has always been at the forefront – or at least that is what it likes to believe. Post-Brexit – in a world where tolerance has been hit and austerity has taken its toll – The MJ, Penna and North West Employers teamed up for a round table event with senior HR professionals to ask where they were on equality.
It is a mixed picture. One of our debaters kicks off by explaining their experience. ‘We are a very white borough, so it is easy to hit our equality targets for the local area. But the next frontier is the lived experience.’
Despite looking OK on paper, many of our guests suggest the reality is a very different picture. One authority has a ‘predominantly BAME’ workforce in its social care department, but with an almost completely white management. ‘I was shocked about how much BAME staff are in the system compared with their white counterparts,’ we are told.
Others agree that the further you get up the organisational hierarchy you get in most authorities, the whiter it becomes. One of our debaters says their top 100 managers group has only two BAME managers in it.
The lack of resources has taken its toll. The ‘basics have slipped’ and HR departments have been more focused on resilience than they have on diversity. Many of the authorities lost of lot of talent as their organisations downsized and they are only just recovering.
‘We are miles behind the curve. We haven’t looked at diversity and inclusion for five years and we just don’t have the metrics,’ one of our HR professionals states. Another explains they have good representation now when it comes to women at a senior level, but other minority groups are more of an issue.
The ageing workforce is a recurring theme for many round the table. As a lot of the experience in the sector is getting ready to leave, some of our HR professionals are working with local universities and schools. Attracting young people to work for a council is not easy, but if you are tackling diversity issues, you have to get right down to schools level.
And when it comes to recruitment, local government needs to reconsider how it hires. The competitive process of job interviews, paying staff for longevity over talent, working in a rigid nine-to-five way – it doesn’t appeal to younger workers. Instead, one HR professional says they should be telling people to ‘come here to work and change people’s lives’.
There is a clear belief that diversity needs to be more than just box-ticking. Ensuring you have policies in place for dealing with the ‘protected characteristics’ enshrined in the Equalities Act is one thing, but that doesn’t enshrine the ‘lived experience’ of staff members or residents.
What policies need is a common sense approach which treats people as individuals rather than statistics. ‘Be kind and compassionate’ we hear. HR processes can often get bogged down in legal requirements and statutory duties but treating people with kindness is often more effective.
One debater suggests they have ‘quite a lot of staff support groups’ which can be useful, but they can also segregate people. ‘Stop thinking about people as a group and start thinking about them as individuals,’ we are advised.
Beware of benchmarking, we are told. Signing up to collect badges – like the latest Stonewall diversity index – can be useful to remind people about diversity, but there is a cost attached. It is more important to have staff feel like they are part of an inclusive organisation, rather than collecting a stamp to prove it.
One debater says: ‘Each of our executive members have taken a lead on a protected characteristics and now each member of the SMT will do the same. But when you talk to the staff they still get annoyed that we have got all the benchmarks but it doesn’t feel like it. You need to find a way of keeping it on the agenda and keeping it alive.’
Another delivers a sobering thought. ‘For me, it’s more about the impact on communities. Hate crimes have gone up. Making sure you keep an eye on the wellbeing of our communities.’
They suggest we have ‘gone back to’ the 1970s or 1980s, when it comes to racism, with people being abused in the streets for their ethnicity. Supporting the staff and the public post-Brexit is an important role of the local authority.
When it comes to disabilities, there are a whole range of other issues. Not everyone wants to disclose their disability. Others may appear later on in life – mental health issues, physical disabilities and debilitating conditions. Again, its about kindness, compassion and making reasonable adjustments to accommodate barriers. ‘It’s a person-centred approach. If they are not well, they are not well. Just be kind.’
It cuts across all aspects of equality and diversity. ‘Focus on culture, values and leadership. How do we create an environment where the action is more important than the measurement?’
One debater finishes on a positive note. ‘I don’t think we realise how far we have come. It’s worth pausing and taking stock.’
Round table attendees
Simon Bagley, Bury MBC
Lee Fellows, Bolton MBC
Catherine Pearson, Greater Manchester Projects and Contracts
David Alexander, GMCA
Shawna Gleeson, Manchester City Council
Julia Veall, Oldham MBC
Sue Williams, Stockport MBC
Tracy Brennand, Tameside MBC
Sara Seleh, Trafford MBC
Lisa Selby, Wigan MBC
John Henry, GMHSCP
Safina Nadeem, CQC and asssociate of North West Employers
David Alexander, GMCA
Sam Betts, Salford City Council
PC David Willetts, GMP
David Slatter, Penna
Peter John, Penna
Helen Alwell, Penna