The Race Disparity Audit: How one civil service team is mapping the impact of ethnicity in Britain

The Race Disparity Audit won the Chris Martin Policy Award in 2018. Marcus Bell, director of the RDU, speaks to CSW about the work of the unit, and what lies in the future

Credit: Baldo Sciacca

By Emma Sheppard

19 Jun 2019

In 2016, the then prime minister Theresa May announced her intention to tackle “burning injustices” that exist in UK society. It was a commitment she listed as one of her achievements as she resigned three years later, by “shining a light on inequality so it has nowhere to hide”, via such initiatives as gender pay reporting and a world first race disparity audit.

The success of the Race Disparity Unit (RDU) was celebrated at the 2018 Civil Service World Awards, where the team won the Chris Martin Policy Award. It’s a title that recognises excellence in domestic or international policy making, and one Marcus Bell, director of the RDU, says the team were delighted to win. “I have a very highly motivated and positive team who were really pleased to have that [work] recognised,” he adds.  

The vast volume of that work, which shines a light on the disparity of experiences between white Britons and those from ethnic minority backgrounds, is clear by the breadth of topics covered by the audit. There are currently 176 data sets, spanning sectors from housing and education, to employment, health, and the criminal justice system. The data shows, for example, that black people are three times more likely to be arrested than white people; people of white British and Indian backgrounds are more likely than other ethnicities to be homeowners; and people in the Black ethnic group are the most likely to have been detained under the Mental Health Act.

Pulling such data together proved a challenge at times, Bell admits, particularly as nothing at this scale had been tried before. “It was a proper startup. Zamila Bunglawala [RDU’s deputy director] and I were handed a piece of paper that was six pages long and told ‘make this happen’ … The first thing we did was a stock take with the departments … [asking] ‘what data do you hold that has any information about ethnicity?’ That uncovered a huge volume of data, around 340 data sets.”

The team also spent time with NGOs representing ethnic minorities and held focus groups with members of the public to determine the best way to present the information. “Figuring out what was actually publishable [and] what would be of interest to the public and other audiences [was quite a task],” he says, adding that the comments they’ve since received proved it was time well spent. “When we started, a lot of the feedback we had from NGOs was that they didn’t really trust government data around ethnicity. So we put a lot of effort into making sure they trusted the process through which this was put together and believed it would be a helpful thing.”

"When we started, a lot of the feedback we had from NGOs was that they didn't really trust the government data around ethnicity. So we put a lot of effort into making sure they trusted the process"

Much of the data uncovered was technically “in the public domain”, Bell adds, but was often hidden in CSV files, four clicks deep on a website, buried in long detailed reports, or just hard to understand. The RDU strove to do things differently, and a year after beginning their work, launched the Ethnicity Facts and Figures website, making the audit’s findings publically available in a digital, accessible way. It will also be updated on a regular basis. “[The audit] is not a report,” he adds. “It’s a living data set [that] changes as the reality changes in the real world. That lets us know if things are getting better or worse.”

Despite the publication of the audit, the work of the RDU is not due to end anytime soon. There is an ongoing programme of user research, and an ambition to solve issues their work uncovered. One such example is ethnicity classifications, which are not consistent across government departments. “[Some just use] white or ethnic minority, others will use 18 different classifications in line with what the ONS suggests, the rest fall somewhere in between,” Bell says, adding the RDU will work with the ONS to implement its guidelines across government. And there are more data sets to sift through. “We [still] have quite a number of years work ahead of us in terms of working through all of those data sets and bringing them all online.”   

Meanwhile, the initiatives and policies inspired by the RDU’s work continue to stack up, much of which the team supports (primarily through making comparative data available). Those include the Lammy review of the criminal justice system, a £90m fund announced by the DCMS to support young people from ethnic minority backgrounds into employment, and a range of targets to improve ethnic minority representation across senior leadership roles in the public sector. The race at work charter, with signatories including NHS England, KPMG, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS, also aims to drive a change in the recruitment and progression of ethnic minority employees.

As well as informing much of the future work on improving the experience of ethnic minorities, which Bell says was a clear objective behind the race disparity audit – “clearly if the government publishes a massive, not very comfortable data set about ethnicity, it creates an expectation that it's going to do something about it” – he also believes there are lessons about the RDU’s approach that the wider civil service can learn. He puts his team’s success down to its multidisciplinary nature, with a mixture of technical people (such as statisticians and developers), and policy people working together, which is quite rare in government. And he says they have highlighted how much data is available but not being utilised effectively by departments. “There’s quite a lot of untapped potential there,” he adds. “We’ve made use of their data to explain where we are as a country with ethnicity but there’s plenty more to be done.”

The Civil Service Awards are accepting nominations until 24th June 2019

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