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Check! Pitfalls in ticking the Diversity box in the Public Sector

Are some Public Sector bodies simply “box-ticking” when seeking people from BME communities to join their Boards?

We believe that there are many ways in which Boards can lead by example and bring about strategic and real change from the top. But intentions to do so have to be based on moral, ethical as well as business reasons.

According to Sir David Normington GCB, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, “public bodies should have boards which are skilled, experienced and understand the communities they serve”. Yet, how many public sector organisations can genuinely say that their Boards are fairly represented?

The Commission recently released statistics that indicated positive trends in the diversity of those being appointed to public bodies, which included an increase in the proportion of people represented from BME (Black, Minority & Ethnic) backgrounds to 7.7%. This is a 2.2% increase from the figures in 2010, yet a drop of 1% from a decade ago. Either way, the small variation is immaterial and inconsequential.

We heard the recent news that David Cameron was appointing members onto the Cabinet so that his government would look less “pale, male and stale”, but the result was a cabinet that is ever so slightly male, but not any less pale.

Was Mr Cameron “box ticking” or do we believe that he is fully cognisant of the value that people from under-represented groups can bring to the Cabinet table?

Let’s take the National Health Service (NHS) as a case in point. Just 7% (and falling) of NHS Trust Board members are from a BME background. In London, there is just one BME Trust Chair and not one BME Chief Executive.

So why does this matter?

NHS’s own guidance states that if Boards are unrepresentative of their local communities, then they will be challenged in ensuring care is genuinely patient-centred. All this goes against the values that underpin the NHS Constitution, one of which being: “maximising resources for the benefit of the whole community, making sure that nobody is excluded, discriminated against or left behind”. Therefore, it matters because being inclusive in policy and practice is a constitutional requirement and because from a moral and ethical standpoint it is fulfills the purpose of an organisation that is publicly accountable.

It has been reported that many public sector organisations, just like the NHS, are facing a crisis in appointing talent from BME communities. Despite efforts to “target” the communities in advertising campaigns there is very little uptake or interest from this segment of the population. Those individuals from who already hold NED positions often share their experiences of being isolated or “invisible” at Board meetings.

Why might this be the case?

One person who we recently mentored and who happens to be the only BME Non Executive Director (NED) at her NHS Trust said that her Chair continually compared her performance at Board meetings, including the way she spoke, with her White colleagues. She said that she felt unsupported or undervalued in other areas of her contribution, had never been asked about what relevant skills and experience she had to bring to the Trust (apart from at the interview), and that she was soon approached to be the “diversity champion” at her Trust.

So, is speaking eloquently and crisply, and in the style of Queen’s English, the ticket to success for a NED whose first language may not be English? And should people from under-represented groups be assigned the “diversity champion” label because of who they are or because that is all they might be able to bring to the Board table?

We mentored another individual who was an experienced NED in the NHS. She had applied to join another health Board in London and told us of her experience of the interview process. It transpired that the advertisement for this role had mentioned that the organisation was “particularly seeking applicants from under-represented groups” and who brought experience of “community engagement”. Yet she found that none of the interview questions clarified why they were seeking to diversify their Board, or if they were seeking to improve services through better community engagement, or what the candidate thought about the importance of equality and diversity, or how she might deal with issues concerning discrimination. She said that when she asked them about their equalities agenda she felt a sense of discomfort and defensiveness amongst the panel members. As it happens, the interview panel was also all White.

She wasn’t appointed in the end and the feedback she received was that her responses were not sharp enough.

Even when a public sector body is successful in appointing a candidate from a BME community background, our experience of working in this area is that the challenge of being seen and heard, of having contributions valued and respected, and of talents and experiences being utilised and developed, is often the barrier for those candidates to develop any further. The psychological impact of this can often be devastating and could have equally damaging implications in terms of those individuals’ reputation and progress within the sector.

So, back to our original question: Are some Public Sector bodies simply “box-ticking” when seeking people from BME communities to join their Boards?

Here are some practical steps you might wish to take at your organisation:

  • Start the conversation and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo – even if you might be a lone voice at your Board
    • Is there fair and equal representation of people and views?
    • Is the culture driven by paper pushing and box ticking activities, or is there real commitment in practice to ensure diversity?
    • Are there blockages in the area of leadership that are suffocating any genuine efforts to drive diversity initiatives?
    • Is there a gatekeeper, such as the Chairperson, who might be blocking genuine commitment to and promotion of inclusion and diversity?
  • Ask the right questions at the Board and hold the executive to account
  • Seek clarity and consensus on the benefits of diversity and fair representation – for the business, for your workforce and for the public
  • Incorporate diversity metrics as a key performance indicator and in your risk management frameworks, so that they can be tracked and measured, and evaluated for impact
  • Push for a Skills Audit that goes beyond technical skills and experience of functional areas (HR, Finance, etc) – one that should also include community knowledge and engagement
  • Don’t necessarily assume Equality and Diversity training is the answer – follow through actions and a sign-up to commitment and ownership for implementation is key
  • Consider deploying an unconscious bias training programme for the Chairperson (for Board appointments) and Executive leads (for senior appointments), in order to reduce bias in race-specific situations. Companies, such as the BBC and Barclays have recently introduced such programmes
  • Robustly evaluate your recruitment and selection processes in order to avoid the issue of ticking boxes and blaming a lack of talent pool
  • Support the development of initiatives – if your organisation has initiatives that are aimed specifically at increasing gender diversity, then similarly encourage the development of initiatives that relate to race and ethnicity
  • Benchmark with other organisations – across the public, private and voluntary sectors. See what other organisations are doing across the world, which may use special diversity charters, be members of professional networks, conduct B-ready training, or implement development programmes
  • Declare targets for under-represented groups, print them in your annual reports and be transparent about them. Being unclear or simply avoiding them may only exacerbate matters in the public domain.

Ajay Mehta has worked with numerous organisations across the voluntary and public sectors in the area of equality and diversity, guiding their Boards and leaders in identifying the business benefits of inclusion and diversity.

For further information on how we might be able to help you, you can contact Ajay on

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