Why prioritising EDI is business-critical

If we want the benefits of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) it has to be worked on as a priority and be baked into the DNA of our culture, says Gordon McFarlane.

Two headline news stories prompted lively debate on the expendability of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in public services. Former health secretary Steve Barclay ordered the NHS to stop recruiting for EDI roles, describing these as ‘wasted budget', the underlying narrative being, it is fat to be trimmed.

Compare this assumption with evidence given by ex-deputy cabinet secretary, Helen MacNamara, to the Covid-19 inquiry. She asserted a lack of diversity in the Cabinet led to women's deaths in lockdown. A male-dominated Cabinet, that refused to listen to evidence from women, prioritised policy on attendance at football matches, hunts and shoots, over protecting women against domestic abuse and the impact of lockdown on maternity services.

In MacNamara's words: ‘It is very difficult to draw any conclusion other than women have died as a result of this'.

These disparities cannot be explained away by ‘unprecedented times'. Today, the maternal mortality rate for black mothers is four times higher than white, prompting the Women and Equalities Committee to conclude there are ‘glaring and persistent disparities in outcomes for maternal health outcomes depending on ethnicity'.

The King's Fund has determined that while ‘access to services is generally equitable, structural racism impacts outcomes'.

In all these cases, a lack of focus on EDI has arguably blinded leaders, decision and policy-makers to the experience and needs of other groups. Far from fat to be trimmed, effective EDI policies turned into action could have saved lives and improved outcomes for service users.

The value of a clear focus on EDI in public service isn't simply to ensure we comply with our statutory equality obligations, but to create better services for service users, and to become better and more inclusive employers to work for. Research from credible sources including McKinsey, Harvard Business Review, and Standard & Poor's, shows more diverse and inclusive organisations make better, bolder decisions, take less unnecessary risk, create more profitable commercial outcomes and have a deeper understanding of service user needs that enables them to anticipate future needs and to innovate.

From a workforce perspective, research from Deloitte and PwC shows that inclusive leadership improves employee engagement and retention. Employees with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to say they are highly engaged at work.

At a time when public services are being asked to find solutions to more complex challenges and to deliver more with less resources, the benefits of prioritising EDI can lead to becoming business-critical rather than a nice to have.

If we want these benefits we have to appreciate EDI doesn't just happen, it has to be worked on as a priority. Effective leaders of EDI strategies and policies need to have the right knowledge, skills and experience to lead an organisation through systemic and cultural transformation, as well as the personal resilience to influence leaders and hold them to account. They also need deep, evidence-based knowledge to understand and critically address systemic barriers to equity and inclusion.

I am delighted that PPMA members understand the critical role of EDI in service improvement and staff retention, ranking it a top priority for 2024. Often those most in need of essential public services are the most marginalised and hardest to reach. A good awareness and understanding of our communities, their needs and how to engage them is critical to the effective delivery of services and efficient use of taxpayers' money.

We recognise, in the face of further funding cuts and rising social need, leaders are being stretched to the limit to find solutions to intractable challenges. Diversity of thought, experience and perspective will put us in a better position to find solutions to taxing problems.

Added to which, inclusive workforces drive inclusive services and deliver service improvement. Leadership teams that nurture an inclusive culture empower employees to apply their personal experience and insight to understand the needs of service users and encourage their input to solutions.

Will there be a point in the future when public services no longer need dedicated EDI roles? For that to happen, EDI must first be baked into the DNA of our culture, policy and practice so we no longer see the consequences of inequity in our health education and social outcomes. We are on a journey and we need to stay committed to it.

Gordon McFarlane is assistant director, Leicestershire CC and president of the PPMA



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