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Diversity: don't civil servants have something better to be doing?

If every public service is created by straight, white, middle-class men, the result is ‘great’ services for straight, white, middle-class men.

I volunteer for the cross-government network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans civil servants, the Civil Service Rainbow Alliance (CSRA). As part of my role, I lead communications and events, including our website, social media channels, and newsletter. Over the past few months, as CSRA continues to become more visible and widely known in the Civil Service, we’ve been getting an increasing number of questions asking a simple question: “don’t civil servants have something better to be doing?”

Everyone working on CSRA projects does so in their spare time or as their ‘corporate contribution’ to the Civil Service, so the question here is possibly borne a little from misunderstanding. It’s worth responding to that question though.

Why does the public sector bother with worrying about its own diversity? Why should it? Isn’t it just a waste of tax-payers money?

Great government works for everyone

Job centres. Courts. Prisons. School inspectors. The public sector you interact with is much bigger than the narrow, distant bubble of Whitehall you’ll hear talked about most in the press. Most of government and the public sector works on the same thing: delivering public services.

In the private sector you get to pick who your users are: suppliers segment their market and usually go after the money. To some extent, it’s ok to not meet everyone’s needs because that might not be the strategy that leads to profit and growth. Those companies are entitled to make products and services that meet the needs of users they want to cater for, and the market does the rest.

In the public sector, you don’t get that luxury.

Great public services meet user needs. They’re shaped as users perceive them and they work as the user would expect them to. And because they’re public services, they should work for everyone. Frequently, the law demands it, but mainly, it’s just the right thing to do. That has big implications for the way public services should be formulated, designed, built and run. That’s why diversity in the public sector is important.

In fact, it’s why one of the Civil Service’s top 3 priorities is improving diversity and inclusion inside government. When people from diverse backgrounds are involved in building and running services, you get better services that work for everyone.

Homogeneity means bad services

User-focused organisations, conversant in internet technologies and agile ways of working, pride themselves on their use of multi-disciplinary teams to create products and services. The unit of delivery is the team, and everyone brings a different skill set to the table. There’s a lot the wider world could learn from that ethos: but in a service context it’s also fundamentally lacking.

Multiple disciplines aren’t enough to create great public services. You need multiple diversities too.

To see why, you just need to look at your smartphone.

Snapchat is one of the biggest social media apps in the world right now. As recently as this year, the ‘lenses’ in its app have been branded racist. Some users are also claiming that it’s facial recognition software doesn’t detect their faces - because they’re black. All this whilst it’s CEO, the straight, young, white man, Evan Spiegel, can barely string together a coherent answer to questions about his organisation’s lack of diversity.

I’m not using Snapchat as the example to shame them, or because I think it’s deliberate - technology is hard to get right, and they aren’t the only ones doing it badly - but Snapchat is a microcosm of the macro-problem.

When you don’t have a diverse team of people working on your service - even one that’s trivially putting cute filters on your face for vanity - you get bad services.

Don’t you have something better to do?

Government has a diversity problem.

If you’re a senior civil servant in the UK - one of a very small cadre accountable for the delivery of every part of government - you’re more likely to be a white, middle-class, straight man with no disabilities. Look at the next level down, at the ‘senior managers’1 of the Civil Service, and the picture is slightly - but only slightly - better.

These are the people formulating policy, and designing the rules and structures of services. They are the ones who put the advice to ministers about what the best thing to do is. They decide how services work; what your experiences with government look and feel like.

Mostly they aren’t like you, and that’s a problem for everyone because homogenous teams create bad public services.

This matters for public services. Whilst companies like Snapchat being racially-exclusive means a non-white teen can’t look like a puppy for their adoring masses, for a public service, it means people’s lives and money are at risk. The issues caused by public services being built by homogenous teams are non-trivial.

Most of the people designing the public services you need are middle-class, able-bodied, straight, white men. And middle-class, able-bodied, straight, white men will do what they are hard-wired to do: design for other middle-class, straight, white men. They’re (probably) not doing it on purpose, but their unconscious biases stop them from seeing the rest of the world.

For service delivery teams and policy people it boils down to this: you are not your users, so you need diversity to meet their needs.

  1. In the Civil Service, senior managers are known as Band A, or Grade 7 and Grade 6.