It’s easy to spot headlines in our interview with outgoing Government Equalities Office (GEO) chief Jonathan Rees (see news, and interview). He calls loudly for action to boost diversity – in public appointments as well as the senior civil service – and condemns the repeated machinery of government changes which, while much diminished across Whitehall, still afflict the GEO. But he also presents clear, if more subtle, arguments on the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), government consultations – both currently under review – and on cross-departmental working.
The new system for setting departmental goals, he believes, weakens both the levers that can catalyse interdepartmental collaboration, and the influence across Whitehall of smaller bodies like his own. The risk here is that departments act without considering how their policies affect the work of their peers; meanwhile, an ill-thought-out dilution of the rules around PSED and consultations could damage departments’ assessments of the likely impacts of their own actions at ground level.
Every civil servant can tell horror stories of pointless consultations and redundant impact assessments; of resources wasted on producing reports doomed from their conception to gather dust on a shelf. Yet as the government seeks a less onerous way to achieve its objectives on diversity and equality, it mustn’t rely on the goodwill of public servants handed a myriad of sometimes conflicting objectives. Yes, the ways in which policies’ impacts are predicted and considered must be flexible, proportionate, intelligent and efficient. But there’s still a need for that very unfashionable concept: the application of process. In an era when the red tape challenge and bonfire of the quangos dominate the Whitehall discourse, there’s a danger that the systems designed to head off interdepartmental policy clashes, unplanned negative consequences and community resistance become degraded. That would damage not only not only the lives of minority groups, but also the work of every department whose success depends on the work of their peers. And that, of course, is all of them.