I was a director the last time community cohesion was high on the agenda of local authorities. On that occasion it was race riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford and the subsequent Cantle Report which prompted major initiatives around recruitment, service delivery and community engagement (specifically increasing black and ethnic minorities’ confidence in the council).
Like now, the challenge was to bridge the gap between those who recognised institutional racism and unconscious bias and those who didn’t.
There was no argument about the statistic on recruitment and service delivery but hadn’t we tried to increase the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff working for the organisation and hadn’t we encouraged people from BAME groups to use are services if they met the eligibility criteria? We didn’t knowingly employ racists and we didn’t tolerate racist language or behaviour. Although it turned out that not everyone was clear on what was and wasn’t acceptable or what was an appropriate response.
Champions were identified, (some self-selecting, some nominated), targets were set and strategies put in place to meet them. HR revised the recruitment process to try to reduce the scope for prejudice or unintended bias distorting short listing and interviewing. Interview panels were to be balanced in terms of gender and where possible race (it was mostly not possible because of the small number of black managers). Equality and diversity training courses were run with an emphasis on race. Starting with senior managers there was an expectation all managers would take up the training which was to be rolled out to the wider staff group. Roadshows, conferences and workshops were held with key note speeches by senior managers to get across the organisations commitment and to help staff understand why and how we wanted things to change.
This was not a one-off initiative but a rolling programme over a number of years. The numbers did not dramatically change but equality and diversity had a much higher profile in the organisation. The Black staff working within the organisation reported having more confidence in senior managers and the organisation. Black staff were our best ambassadors at increasing the BAME communities’ confidence in the local authority. This would slowly but inevitably lead to more people approaching the authority with a positive expectation and more people seeing us as a prospective employer.
The more we stated that diversity was a good thing, the more we recruited a diverse workforce and the greater the expectation of staff that managers would create a safe, fair, prejudice free work place. Unfortunately, these raised expectations were not always met. For this reason, we put a lot of emphasis on improving the quality of managers.
Other than the sheer stamina involved in maintaining equality and diversity high on the agenda, other pressures came into play. Whilst accepting that this was initially about race it was soon broadened to include a range of groups, gender, faith, disability, sexuality and challenging ageism. After all these groups also suffered discrimination and social exclusion. And wasn’t community cohesion about making everyone feel they belong?
The world does not stand still, and there will always be a change in administration, a new chief executive, management restructuring, budget reductions, audits, inspections, league tables and new government initiatives. There’s an increasingly crowded agenda and a limit to the organisation’s capacity. Gradually community cohesion/ equality and diversity slips down the agenda. At which point it is important to recognise the only thing more detrimental to the cause than doing nothing is doing a little and thinking it’s enough.
So having bridged the gap between those supporting and advocating Black Lives Matter and those who don’t the challenge will be to find the stamina, capacity and will to keep the dialogue open and the momentum going from one administration to the next, from one chief executive to the next and from one competing priority to the next.
Blair McPherson is a former director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk