We in local government HR can't just do what we've always done

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Processes are designed with good intent but they often become barriers, encouraging perverse behaviour that undermines what we hoped to achieve

We are living through challenging and changing times and as public servants we must remain agile and responsive to keep up. But this is easier said than done.

Like many others in local government, we at Camden council and our community face a number of complex problems: London’s chronic housing shortage, Brexit and its aftermath, a pressured health and social care system, a changing benefits regime, and rising living costs.

To succeed in this environment we must be far more creative and innovative. We simply cannot do what we’ve always done. We need to create a new way of working where everyone – the council, citizens and communities – can come together to develop new ideas. We need to design people-shaped services not services based around organisational structures. This means removing silos and hierarchies, and co-designing with citizens as well as staff closest to the work.

Yet to move to this new paradigm there is one critical dimension: inclusion and diversity. In its broadest sense this means diversity of thought, experience and background. We need to harness the expertise, commitment, sense of social justice and purpose that exists within our workforce, our communities and beyond. And therein lies the challenge for HR.

For many years we have guided our organisations through an equality and diversity agenda that was largely risk-based and driven by legislation. This has taken many forms, including zero-tolerance policies around harassment, unconscious bias training and, more latterly, being open and transparent with data. (We were the first council to publish our pay gap data for gender, disability and ethnicity, two years ahead of the statutory requirement on gender.)

None of this has been wrong. But have we really managed to create truly diverse and inclusive workforces that represent the communities we serve?

At Camden council we hope to create a truly inclusive organisation – one that continuously learns by opening itself up through data and asking for feedback, accepting the discomfort this brings. Doing so has helped us shape our approach around some key areas.

Firstly, leadership. We know the power of role-modelling and that we must challenge our most senior colleagues on progress. We have learnt the power of informal social networks and how underrepresented groups often have the least-developed networks. We have found that many individuals also self-censure and deselect themselves from pursuing new opportunities – because of a lack of self-confidence or a belief that ‘my face doesn’t fit’. In response we are setting up a focused sponsorship and mentoring programme led by our senior leaders.

But this isn’t about ‘fixing’ a particular group. As leaders we have to fix systemic barriers that may perpetuate any group’s under-representation. Our processes are designed with good intent but they often become barriers in themselves, encouraging perverse behaviour that undermines what we hoped to achieve in the first place.

We have learnt to be constantly mindful of this. Which means evaluating our work, looking at the data and evidence, and not seeking to defensively ‘justify’ what it appears to be telling us; instead listening to the lived experiences of our staff. We are still learning. But we have introduced a scheme for those returning from prolonged periods away from employment, we are looking at how we can support colleagues with caring responsibilities, and we are committed to challenging any bias within recruitment processes.

It’s also about consciousness. We all have biases – conscious or unconscious – and it’s vital that as leaders we are not afraid to say that. We need to create genuine dialogue on these issues and this requires honesty.

Of course there is no magic pill that will deliver inclusivity overnight. As the cliché goes: it’s a journey.

But it’s a journey worth making. Not only is there a moral argument, but by welcoming and supporting difference we know we will make better decisions, be more innovative and creative, show more empathy, and ultimately deliver better outcomes. And that, after all, is what it’s all about.

Jo Brown is director of HR and OD at the London Borough of Camden

This piece appeared in the July – August 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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