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Diversity and inclusion – the job’s not done

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 5 Nov 2020

More and more, organisations are rightly stepping up on their commitment to diversity and inclusion both internally and externally. It is an issue we discussed in depth with our current Aspiring Chief Executive (ACX) programme delegates, who have proudly made the improvement of diversity and inclusion in local government their legacy. It was also one of the many focuses of our wide-ranging discussion with Kingston LBC chief executive Ian Thomas, as part of Penna’s Black History Month celebrations.

Our ACX cohort are executive directors from across UK local government, and when they were asked what they thought about the current state of diversity and inclusion in the public sector: more than 50% of them had experienced discrimination or unequal treatment themselves, and more than 80% had witnessed the discrimination or unequal treatment of others. It’s perhaps not surprising that they felt driven to do more to improve diversity in the sector.

As current and future leaders their comments were honest and recognised the challenges, including:

‘There’s poor representation at senior levels’

‘It’s not reflective of the community it serves’

• It is very poor, there is a huge amount of rhetoric but very limited action’

‘Lots of authentic commitment, but not a great deal of confidence or certainty about what needs to happen’

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has led many organisations to think deeper, move faster and consult their workforces, and the communities they serve, about what needs to change. As one of our cohort put it, BLM has invited organisations to ‘reflect on policies and service delivery to ensure positive action regarding diversity and inclusion’ and that each individual council ‘has the trust and [is] meeting the needs of its communities’.

Our ACX cohort has worked together to define what should be done to promote more diversity, and increase inclusivity, in the public sector. This ranged from ‘publicised targets for organisations, particularly in relation to gender and representation’, to making ‘members understand some of the challenges’.

During our recent Black History Month webinar with Ian Thomas, he said in relation to increasing the numbers of senior leaders from minority backgrounds: ‘I’m going to keep talking about our responsibility as managers and leaders. Unfortunately, my late dear mother was right. We have to work twice as hard. We don’t want favours, only fairness. Working hard, and being great at what you do, is a pre-requisite.’

As a trusted recruitment partner to the public sector, we feel it’s our responsibility to influence and boost inclusivity in our client’s organisations. We’ve a duty to help them attract, retain, and develop diverse and talented individuals. In Ian’s words, to help introduce more ‘fairness’ into the recruitment process.

What is good to see is that more clients than ever are seeking action on diversity and inclusion, which is a great start. We’re working with many councils to reshape their recruitment and development programmes, and make strides not steps towards improved diversity and inclusion. For us, measures such as redesigned unconscious bias job specifications, blind sifting, and ensuring diverse representation on interview and final panels will be the minimum. We’re inspired by the appointments made in Kingston, where Ian gave credit to his members in Kingston who have appointed a diverse senior leadership team.

It is also about focusing on the ‘inclusion’ element of diversity and inclusion, to ensure the talent you bring in wants to stay and develop with you. As our ACX cohort rightly pointed out, the big win must be in developing the workforce currently within councils; investing in staff from ethnic minorities ‘in terms of training and opportunities, providing them with real acting up opportunities, mentoring from senior influential leaders’.

That was the same for Ian Thomas too. In his view, those aspiring to become the diverse leaders of the future ‘need to be better at networking. Show me your network, and I’ll show you your net worth. We need to seek out mentors’.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with my network about what the sector can do; and supporting the ACX cohort to lead by example and make the most of their leadership impact. Here at Penna, we are re-doubling our efforts to drive change through our work, asking difficult questions, talking about the uncomfortable so that we can build our client’s networks. We’re determined to continue the force for change set by the BLM movement.

The journey towards a truly diverse and inclusive public sector continues. Let’s keep up the momentum together.

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna