Turning words into deeds on diversity

By Chris Naylor and Nazeya Hussain | 17 January 2023

Local government is making painfully slow progress in building representative teams.

It has taken more than a decade to see the number of black council chief executives in London increase from two to four and the wider UK picture is less of a picture, than a fading snapshot of bygone times. But we are living through crisis after modern-day crisis, and councils haven’t got time to waste any more.

Throughout 2022 the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) worked on a series of actions based around our decision to make anti-racism a strategic priority. We did this in order to deliver on our commitment to promoting equality, diversity and inclusion across local government. We set out to design, drive, support and lead urgent activity to tackle an issue that is contributing to a staffing and talent crisis in local government just when the sector most needs highly engaged and motivated teams who understand their local communities’ experiences and their requirements.

Making change happen means first confronting the scale of a problem. Solace dug into the statistics to explore and demonstrate just how bad things are.

Our report found that outside London and the East Midlands, the council workforce in every region had a lower proportion of staff from minoritised ethnic backgrounds than that group’s representation in the local working population. At senior and leadership positions and among top earners, the proportion of those groups dropped even further. In most councils, the more senior the position, the least likely it is to be representative of the local working population.

We compiled our report from publicly available information for the 152 metropolitan districts, county councils, London boroughs and unitary authorities. We used councils’ published ethnicity data and data by ethnicity, pay and grade, and we looked at variations in categories used by councils, as well as the date they were published and the time that had since elapsed since updating.

Councils themselves knew all this already. We thought: how can we offer support to help them understand what good data looks like and what that data can show them? And then we made several recommendations.

Firstly, we ask councils to be transparent about the quality and completeness of the information they collect and hold, by including the response or completion rate for ethnicity data in the council’s HR system.

Secondly, we ask that the sector adopt a consistent categorisation of ethnic groups at sub-category level – in line with the 2021 Census.

And thirdly, we ask councils to standardise data presentation, for example by using a standard approach of recording ethnicity in £10,000 pay bands and median pay gaps.

Additionally, local government should look to incorporate into its data the findings of the 2021 Census, which provides the opportunity to consider the population profile of local areas against the make-up of local government’s workforce. It takes leadership and determination to really look closely at poor situations, in order to make improvement happen.

For many organisations in the sector, the exercise of making transparent how each area is performing in terms of local diversity will not be comfortable. But Solace has focused on these asks because good quality data is vital to starting the job of achieving equality, diversity and inclusion within our workforces. Information informs action and stops us from being complacent. We committed to continuing to track the landscape and progression of the sector, on which we will be reporting annually. We hope all of you will join us in this endeavour.

However, data is just the start. Action has to follow. We are asking ourselves challenging questions at Solace about what our role should be in making positive change happen and how we can hold ourselves to account for supporting a representative local government workforce. As the UK’s leading member network for local government and public sector professionals, we need to work relentlessly to ensure diverse talent is encouraged, supported, nurtured and recognised across local government. We see our role as constructively holding the sector to challenge and account – but also demonstrating and activating good practice.

After some tough conversations with a national sounding board of chief executives, we developed a Statement of Intent for Diversity & Inclusion. Solace is committed to achieving all of the below as an organisation, as well as challenging the sector too. Here’s what we have signed up to do:

  • Encourage all councils to develop and promote diverse talent within their organisations before embarking on external appointments
  • Support and hold councils to account by publishing data on the makeup of senior executive leadership teams on an annual basis
  • Ensure we hear from and encourage more diverse voices in our work as a leading public sector organisation
  • Provide a platform to listen to the lived experience of others and ensure this is embedded on our organisation in terms of policy formation
  • Make sure Solace becomes more representative across all our policy committees, our staff makeup, and that our sponsors sign up to these principles:
  • Ensure all our speakers and events are reflective of the diversity we want to see across our sector
  • Work with central Government and other representative bodies and professions to improve leadership capacity and talent so that our future pipeline is more representative of the communities we serve
  • Champion good practice and encourage the sector to prioritise inclusion in all facets of policy, recruitment, retention, organisational development, and leadership.

These intentions are just the start of what we want to do. We want to use our platform to host new voices, to hold everyone to account and to set a good example ourselves to address the significant challenge of the talent pipeline in local government so we have a range of thought and experience leading the sector forward.

We also know policies and procedures alone don’t change behaviour or organisational culture. Together we have to create a space where racism is not tolerated and that leaders and managers understand and recognise the life-long barriers that racist practises create. This contribution to our analysis from a black professional in local government employee says it all: ‘My experiences taught me from an early age that I had to navigate through many challenges, well before I actually started on my career journey. Then, when my career began, having the ability to see myself in roles more senior to myself when most people in those roles did not look like me, was really very limited.

‘Your parents and family try hard to protect you and manage your expectations in life, having experienced many barriers themselves. The experiences they did share are etched on your mind. It was a well-used mantra ‘“you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”’

Research conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has found thousands of black and minority ethnic workers face racist behaviour at work, from ‘banter’ and jokes through to bullying and harassment. But four in five do not report, for fear of not being taken seriously or having a negative response that could further affect their work and working conditions. Furthermore, one in 13 of those surveyed said they had left their job as a result of the racism they experienced.

If we do not support the communities we serve, to lead the work and help shape it with us, then we are simply not doing our jobs – none of us.

Therefore, in addition to our data analysis and statement of intent, Solace has also designed a new national programme to support talent within our workforces to flourish and feel recognised and supported.

Working with the Local Government Association we have brought our national programme, AMPlify, to the market, designed in conjunction with E-Quality, with the aim of not just developing representative talent within local government leadership but also to encourage their line managers to take a position as a facilitator for change.

No-one’s professional life should be diminished because of their race or their ethnicity. No-one should feel that their contributions at work are not seen or appreciated because of their race or their ethnicity. And none of us can expect the sector to progress, modernise and meet the challenges it faces, without a truly representative workforce.

We would like to leave you with the following questions, which we ourselves are currently mulling over at Solace:

  • What would dramatic action in our sector look like to you?
  • What could the impact be of a sector-wide pledge to interview at least one candidate from a minoritised ethnic background for all senior management roles?
  • What would positive action look like if it was incorporated into succession planning for leaders and leading talent?

Together, let’s continue this conversation and with urgency, turn words into deeds.

Nazeya Hussain and Chris Naylor are non-executive directors at Solace, and leads on diversity and inclusion

@Solace_UK @publicnaylor

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Solace Data Diversity LGA Council staff