Diversity and inclusion coaching to be ‘integrated’ into core civil service training

Move follows controversial decision to scrap unconscious bias training after Behavioural Insights Team says programmes cannot demonstrate their worth
Julia Lopez

By Jim Dunton

22 Dec 2020

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that civil service training on diversity and inclusion will be rolled into mainstream programmes to provide officials with the skills they need to do their jobs, following the scrapping of unconscious bias training.

Parliamentary secretary at the department Julia Lopez said further details of the move would be set out in the new year as part of a strategy that would “reassert our commitment to being an inclusive employer with a stronger focus on engaging measurable action”.

Lopez said the decision to end unconscious bias training, which aims to help staff understand and remedy previously-unrecognised discriminatory behaviours, was based on the findings of a review put together by the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team.

That report, commissioned by the Government Equalities Office, said there was “currently no evidence” unconscious bias training “changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups”. 

A summary of the findings, published alongside Lopez’s written ministerial statement to parliament, also flagged the risk that unconscious bias training could backfire, by bringing unhelpful stereotypes  to participants’ minds, or leading them to believe that training itself had solved any issues.

It said ministers should "invest in initiatives focused around processes that have better evidence of efficacy", such as those dealing with recruitment and progression.

The Behavioural Insights Team said that in cases where departments had already committed financially to unconscious bias training programmes, mandatory one-off sessions should be avoided on the grounds that they could make problems worse. It added that providers should also be clear on the aims of their training and able to evaluate its impact against relevant outcome measures that went beyond “raising awareness”.

Lopez said the government was determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, but had to ensure that policy and advice on equality was evidence-based and delivered in a way that meant new insights could be responded to quickly.

“The civil service will therefore integrate principles for inclusion and diversity into mainstream core training and leadership modules in a manner which facilitates positive behaviour change,” she said.

“This new strategy will be published in the new year, and will reassert our commitment to being an inclusive employer with a stronger focus on engaging measurable action.”

Unions Prospect and the FDA criticised the government for scrapping unconscious bias training before replacement measures were detailed  and when there was evidence that bias within the civil service was hindering the careers of BAME officials and those with disabilities.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect,  said workplace bias was a serious and complex issue that could only be overcome by putting in place measures to identify it, reduce it, and to deal with specific instances of it fairly and in a timely manner. 

“Not everyone affected by bias in the workplace will necessarily have experienced a specific instance of personal discrimination, and yet you can still see the effects of the bias by looking at pay discrepancies, lack of progression and so on,” he said. 

“This is a huge issue for trade unions both in terms of time spent dealing with it where it exists, and in the effort we put into addressing it at source.

FDA assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby said scrapping unconscious bias training was “absolutely illogical” and urged ministers to get a better understanding of how workplaces operated before “tinkering around the edges of diversity strategy”.

Thirlby said the findings of the Behavioural Insights Team were “inconclusive at best” and  questioned its report as the basis deciding that unconscious bias training should be pulled across the civil service, with a recommendation that it is also ended elsewhere.

“Unconscious bias training in itself will not lead to better outcomes, but it helps to start a crucial conversation,” she said. 

“If the Cabinet Office had looked closer to home and consulted with the civil service trade unions, they would know that unconscious bias training is also the only mandated training for those interviewing candidates across the service (outrageous in itself). This has now been scrapped, leaving a void of training and support at a pinch point in the system that is open to the unintended consequences of bias.”

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