The last few weeks of 2016 saw a stream of evidence that race discrimination in UK employment remains a major policy challenge. Whether in specific sectors such as engineering or for specific communities or on specific issues such as access to senior positions almost two decades on from the 1999 MacPherson Report on institutional racism, evidence of improvement in employment is sporadic.
In our work to implement the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard in the UK’s biggest employer (and biggest employer of BME staff), two documents were particularly influential. Promoting equality for ethnic minority NHS staff – what works was a literature search led by Harvard colleagues with ourselves, whilst the 2004 Audit Commission report, The Journey to Race Equality was a reminder of lessons learnt (and then lost) a decade ago, since when the Audit Commission itself has been abolished.
Ahead of the forthcoming Government response to the MacGregor Smith Review on the obstacles BME people face in the labour market, both documents are a reminder that without a coherent narrative, focused leadership and real accountability, good intentions on race equality in employment are simply not enough.
The Audit Commission report had three starting points:
Many of its findings are as relevant today as they were then. Government policy makers giving speeches about public sector race equality might usefully want to consider why the framework it established was allowed to wither on the vine – and the Audit Commission with it. Its main points are well worth summarising.
“people can feel uncomfortable about discussing race equality openly and …..consequently, race equality is often viewed as a negative issue consisting of multiple ‘problems’ that are the direct result of overtly racist attitudes and behaviours. People who have different needs and aspirations are viewed as a problem rather than a resource, creating ‘extra’ work, additional to mainstream business.” (Para 9-11)
“Although the significant areas of discrimination are known, many local agencies still struggle to be specific about what race equality means locally” (Para 32)
“Local agencies say that race equality is an important part of improving services. However, many are unclear about what they are trying to achieve, and are focusing on compliance with the requirements of the Act” (CRE: Towards Racial Equality, An Evaluation of the Public Duty to Promote Race Equality and Good Race Relations in England and Wales (2002))
“We found that progress is often measured in terms of process, rather than the delivery of outcomes that will impact upon quality of life. Although many local agencies are feeling confident, this is based on a low level of ambition to really deliver outcome change.” (Para 41-43)
The report sets out a five stage improvement journey, still useful today:
The report summarises several flawed assumptions (they feel very familiar a decade later) that prevent progress:
The report usefully reminds us that public services have a duty to respond in a way that is proportionate to the level of need, rather than to the size of the population.
The report warns of the risk that having specialist equality advisers can mean leaders may regard race equality as separate and unrelated to their job – they will leave race equality work to someone else; they also warn about thinking that once integrated into existing systems and processes race equality is no longer an issue that needs to be tracked and monitored.
“It should not be an ‘either/or’. It is also crucial to remain vigilant, even when race equality has been mainstreamed overall, checking that unequal outcomes continue to be tackled”
Delivering race equality “requires a strategic, systematic and coherent approach led from the top. Visible and committed leadership from officers, members and non-executive directors is critical to getting started and sustaining progress”.
“Those at the resisting and intending stage of the journey (see above Para 4) must focus on developing a robust rationale, describing why race equality matters locally and how it benefits everyone. Those that are starting must create a vision for where they want to be that is shared with black and minority ethnic groups and the wider community. Those who are developing must concentrate on increasing their capacity and working with partners. Those who are achieving must ensure that they keep on track by managing their performance. This needs to be underpinned by visible and committed leadership from officers, members and non-executive directors at all stages of the journey.”
These factors were identified as being similar to those the (now abolished) Commission for Racial Equality had already identified as being fundamental to any successful change management (CRE. Equality and Diversity: commitment, involving users, mainstreaming equality and diversity, monitoring performance data and sustainability) and previous Audit Commission research (Audit Commission, Change Here! Managing Change to Improve Local Services, 2001). Paras 71-73
The report lists four key factors which helped to create a more open and honest learning culture by:
The reports stressed the importance of accountability – a key theme emerging from our own literature review a decade later.
“It means being clear about who is accountable for each part of the work and measuring progress. ……Those who are making good progress have gone one step further by integrating the management of race equality within existing performance systems and indicators. This is another way of reinforcing the message that race equality is everyone’s business. Key breakthroughs for managing performance in race equality are:
Interestingly, for our own work in health, the Audit Commission found in 2004 that
“Overall, health organisations have made less progress than the other sectors we looked at. This echoes the CRE’s evaluation (Ref. 16) The CRE acknowledged that this may partly reflect the recent NHS organisational changes. Health staff told us that they often struggled to balance achieving national targets with achieving race equality. This is frequently underpinned by a poor understanding of how delivering race equality can improve services overall.” (Para 98)
The failure of the subsequent Government initiative as summarised by The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS led to a radical rethink about what works.
Part of that rethink was to reinstate the importance of national bodies in driving equality. In the NHS it led to improvement on workforce race equality being a contractual requirement on healthcare providers and a focus of CQC inspections of the quality of care – and to a sustained effort to identify and share “what works” – and perhaps just as importantly what doesn’t.
The Audit Commission noted:
“Achieving race equality is a complex activity and there is little robust knowledge about what works where. Commission research has shown that in these circumstances an explicit national aspiration can help to encourage experimentation, learning and local comparisons (Audit Commission, Targets in the Public Sector, Audit Commission 2003.) 100
Many organisations have made positive first steps, helped by the legislation. It may now be appropriate to build on this further by setting a broad, national aspiration to achieve race equality within a specific timeframe, supported by a few explicit national targets to set clear expectations”.(Para 99)
The report went on to recommend that
“Regulators must explicitly assess whether the needs of black and minority ethnic communities are being adequately addressed and, in partnership with the CRE, take action where this is found not to be the case. The CRE itself is preparing to take a tougher approach to enforcement, particularly where organisations are in wilful non-compliance with the Act.”
The Audit Commission set itself the task of:
Much of that architecture was dismantled with a change of government in 2010. The necessary and sufficient conditions for sustainable progress on race equality may be clearer now than then, though more work remains to be done on understanding the shared characteristics of successful interventions on race equality and how they are made sustainable. But this report is a reminder that revisiting reports like this one, almost lost in government archives, can be an invaluable reminder of what previous research found and should be built on.
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