The growing prominence of local government through devolution has sparked heated debates about local leadership. Earlier this year, as England’s combined authority elections neared and the Northern Powerhouse project entered the media spotlight, observers rightly questioned the male-dominated nature of city-region devolution. The Electoral Reform Society warned that it risked becoming a ‘plaything of old boys’ clubs’. This wasn’t necessarily because the devolution process itself was deliberately exclusionary by design, but because it reflected the unrepresentative nature of local government more generally.
There has since been sustained pressure on addressing the gender gap in local government. The Fawcett Society’s local government commission called for all parties to set targets for increasing the proportion of female councillors, backed by legal requirements if they made little progress. Senior politicians have raised the issue, and Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has worked to ensure a gender-balanced combined authority. West Yorkshire Combined Authority is the first to have a female chair, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, and has a 50:50 gender split.
While there is clearly a long way to go, there appears to be real momentum behind efforts to address gender inequality in local government.
Unfortunately, the debate on driving greater diversity in local leadership has not extended much beyond gender, leaving one gaping hole: that of race and ethnicity. This despite the shocking depths of the ethnicity gap.
A 2016 survey by Green Park found that there is less ethnic diversity in local government leadership positions (97% white) than there is in the FTSE 100 (93%). There are shockingly few non-white council chief executives in the UK. London boroughs, where 40% of the population is BAME, is even less representative than the core cities, with a leadership that is 90% white. The fact that London has a Muslim mayor is obscuring this striking picture of racial exclusion.
These awful figures signify a deep-rooted malaise which stems from the way that policy is made and structures and norms of public leadership are constructed in the UK – as an extension of white middle class privilege, often dominated by the privately educated.
It is not only a problem with councils. Some 97% of the civil service at senior levels is white; while (at the time of the Green Park survey) the figure is 100% for the Cabinet Office, BIS, the Department for Health and the Department for International Development. In the most prominent public bodies outside central and local government, such as the Bank of England and NHS England, only 3% of leadership roles are taken by non-white people. If you look beyond the machinery of government and public services, you’re likely to find a similar picture for the ecosystem of advisers, public affairs companies, consultancies, think-tanks, media organisations and so-called opinion formers. The revolving door of politics and policy is so white it’s embarrassing.
All of this matters not only because it is unfair, but also because it leads to bad policy and poorly designed public services, and undermines the strength of our democracy.
The role of government can no longer be the functional management of public sector bureaucracies. Society is too complex and demographic trends too dramatic to run government like an administrative machine. Policy-makers and public bodies can only achieve their aims if they transform the way they work, by being much more bottom-up and innovative; much more attuned to the complex needs of their communities; much more effective at sharing power with citizens and much stronger as community anchors and leaders of their place.
The change needed in the relationship between citizens and the state to enable this to happen simply cannot be forged when the makeup of government, including councils, does not at all reflect the people it is supposed to serve.
Disasters like Grenfell are reminders that a revolution in policy-making and public leadership is needed if we are to meet these challenges.
Local government may not be alone in its shocking lack of diversity, but it should be in a position to take the lead in addressing the problem. Piecemeal diversity initiatives are not enough. There has to be root-and-branch change. This means setting hard targets, adopting gender and ethnic requirements for leadership positions, transforming recruitment and training practices, and completely re-imagining what public leadership should mean, and communicating it as a viable path for communities that feel excluded and stigmatised.
Atif Shafique is a researcher for public services and communities for the RSA but is writing in a personal capacity