'Superficial' woke debate 'detracting' from diversity and inclusion efforts

Former chief people officer Rupert McNeil urges officials to drown out the noise
The IfG roundtable discussed diversity and inclusion efforts in government

By Tevye Markson

29 Sep 2022

The “superficial” woke-versus-anti-woke war detracts from attempts to improve diversity and inclusion, former government chief people officer Rupert McNeil has said.

Speaking at an Institute for Government roundtable on "building a diverse and inclusive public sector", McNeil criticised the “tendency [in politics] to superficially caricature the opposition and to make more noise out of things where frankly there shouldn't be noise”.

He said officials should ignore this “noise” and focus on "changing the system" to improve diversity and inclusion and get the right outcomes.

The panel also discussed the progress the civil service has made on improving diversity and inclusion in recent years and the value of external pressures and accountability.

The anti-woke and 'performative wokery'

Both sides of the woke debate are hampering progress with diversity and inclusion, McNeil said.

Describing the first – those decrying "wokeness" – he said: “Many people, regardless of political alignment, can be very overtly anti-woke and that can be very unhelpful if it means that you deliberately or unconsciously and ignorantly conflate targets and metrics.

“You need metrics to know whether you're actually going to get anywhere.”

An example he gave of a metric is getting more people from ethnic-minority backgrounds into the workforce – which helps to reach a target of improving public services.

A lack of respect for people’s pronouns is another example of unhelpful anti-wokeness, McNeil said. Earlier this year, then-equalities minister Liz Truss earlier called for an end to “ludicrous debates” on people’s preferred pronouns.

“It does matter what pronouns you use,” McNeil said. “People want to be treated with respect.”

“On the other side of it – what those [overtly anti-woke] people might characterise as woke – there are problems too,” he added.

“There is a real and frustrating tendency, particularly in the most senior leadership in multiple organisations globally, to virtue signal about D&I and not actually realise that they have the agency to change the processes that will get to the right outcomes.”

“There is a real and frustrating tendency, particularly in the most senior leadership in organisations, to virtue signal about D&I and not realise that they have the agency to change the processes that will get to the right outcomes" Rupert McNeil

This can “degenerate into performative wokery and you get a vicious circle”, McNeil said.

Bernadette Thompson, a former deputy director for inclusion, wellbeing and employee engagement at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, agreed that the "woke" debate is unhelpful but is more directly critical of the Conservative government.

“A lot of senior ministers and their advisers have badged a conversation around inclusion as being woke,” she said.

An example of this is attacks on civil service diversity roles such as the one Thompson worked in at DLUHC. Jacob Rees-Mogg, then a Cabinet Office minister, described them as “job creation scheme created by the woke for the woke”, while Liz Truss said she would scrap the roles during the Tory leadership campaign.

“It's not helpful,” Thompson said. “Leaders need to talk about this responsibly. So for me the narrative with some of our senior leaders needs to change.”

Instead, leaders should be getting “back to the basics of trying to understand why we’re talking about [diversity and inclusion] and why we want to do this”, she said.

Illustrating this point, Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the local authority heard from councillors and staff from Bangladeshi and Somali backgrounds that their communities were being disproportionately impacted by the virus, which “the data wasn't telling us”.

“That community insight was coming directly into the council so we were able to respond really quickly with targeted public health support and listen to that lived experience. I think if it wasn't in the heart of our organisation would we wouldn’t have heard it so quickly,” Gould said.

Processes and outcomes: improving services

To improve services, McNeil said civil servants should drown out the “noise” and focus on the “signal”: changing processes to improve outcomes.

Pointing to where progress has already been made, McNeil picked out the Fast Stream, which was recently paused by the government.

“One of the embarrassing things about the civil service Fast Stream in about 2014-2015 was that there was a woeful underrepresentation, I think actually zero, of Black British Caribbean entrants into the Fast Stream.

“Often to the people who are opposing change on the diversity front, if you say ‘we should do this because it's the right thing to do’, they'll say ‘aha! So, we're going to get people who are not as good, then'" Paul Cleal

“The data showed us… that the parts the process that were not automated, the ones that involved human beings, were the ones that we needed to deal with.

“Our assessors, [though] great people, were not representative of the people they were assessing, so we needed to change that. So it got a lot more operational and a lot more real in terms of how it worked.”

A CSW dig into the statistics finds the outcomes are a little less clear, with two instances in the last decade (2016 and 2018) where there have been zero "Black/Black British – Caribbean" Fast Stream recruits and two years with just one (2012 and 2013). The last few years has seen some improvement (2019: five; 2020: five, 2021: 12).

Paul Cleal, a non-executive director at organisations including Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said these types of imbalances can happen “because people…use proxies [such as] the way people speak or the way they look [rather than] actual merit”.

“In the NHS you're four or five times more likely as a black mother to die in childbirth,” he said.

“We found in our trust that black people were being turned away disproportionately for being late; the white person's late because of the traffic, the black person's late because they're ‘well, you know, a bit lazy’ and… so we had to stop everyone being sent away for being late because we couldn't be fair.”

'Where does the buck stop?' The motive factor

Improving processes is easier in the private sector because the profit motive prevents discussions straying into debates on right and wrong, Cleal said.

“If you’re trying to persuade a private sector organisation to do things differently you need to have a reason that's good for the business and that's actually I think quite healthy,” he explained.

“Often to the people who are opposing change on the diversity front, if you say ‘we should do this because it's the right thing to do’, they'll say ‘aha! So, we're going to get people who are not as good, then,'" he added.

“Many organisations are not mature enough to leave people to their devices. Organisations need people whose day job it is to hold senior leaders to account” Bernadette Thompson

But he said organisations that have external pressures, whether reputational or stemming from demand to improve public services or profit making, will make the most progress.

In the public sector, Cleal pointed to the importance of accountability.

“I don't think NHS trusts are as accountable locally as local authorities are and I think it's not surprising you see more diversity at senior levels of local authorities than you do at NHS trusts,” he said.

Thompson agreed that public bodies being held to account properly is vital, calling for "acute accountability": “Where does the buck stop? Who’s responsible for this if it doesn't go the way we need it to go?”

She said diversity roles like hers – now under threat under Truss’s leadership – are an important part of achieving this.

“Many organisations are not mature enough to leave people to their devices. [Organisations] need people like me whose day job it is to hold senior leaders to account.”

And amid pressure to reduce resources going into D&I teams, how do you maintain momentum? 

"Just ignore the headlines," Thompson said, laughing.

"Diversity and inclusion is a firm part of the HR profession."

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Outcome delivery plans suspended after job-cuts saga and Autumn Statement

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