Institutional racism: a global government problem?

By on 28/11/2021 | Updated on 08/03/2022
Nicholas Marcus Thompson stands with representative plaintiffs Michelle Herbert (left) and Kathy Ann Samuel (right). Photo: Cypher Designs via Wikimedia Commons / Black Class Action

In recent years and decades, a number of civil services have been accused of institutional racism. Some countries have since taken steps to ensure the government workforce is ethnically diverse and inclusive. Karen Day explores what measures Canada, the US, the UK, and New Zealand have taken

On 21 September 2022, a C$2.5bn (US$1.97bn) class-action lawsuit on behalf of 1,100 black federal workers against the Canadian government will be brought before a judge for the first time. The procedural ‘certification hearing’ will be the next major step in what is expected to be a long, drawn-out case. The class action, which has grown from just 12 claimants 10 months ago, alleges that for the last 51 years black employees across Canada’s public services have been subjected to institutional racism. It claims that the very measures put in place to alleviate systemic discrimination in Canada’s public services have in fact perpetuated it, leaving black Canadians concentrated in its lowest ranks. The Canadian government has acknowledged that “systemic racism is a problem across the country” and is making urgent reforms. It is unclear whether it will contest the case.

Canada is not alone. New Zealand, the UK, and the US have, over the years, all faced allegations of institutional racism within their civil services. Yet these governments are now rolling out on new initiatives to root out racism and improve public service diversity – acknowledging the fact that this issue is far from resolved. So, just what are they doing to tackle the problem?

Canada’s most senior civil servant, Ian Shugart, clerk of the Privy Council, launched a call to action on anti-racism a month after the class-action lawsuit was filed in December 2020. In a message to all heads of agencies, Shugart said “we have an obligation to our employees to do better… As public servants come forward to courageously share their lived experiences, the urgency of removing systemic racism from our institutions becomes more evident”.

Shugart gave public service leaders nine areas to address including appointing more black and indigenous employees to leadership roles. They were told to personally commit to learning about and combatting racism and were given until the end of August to report on their progress. The Privy Council Office says these reports will be made public in the next few weeks, but it refuses to be drawn on the class action. “The work of eradicating bias, barriers, and discrimination, which have taken root over generations, demands an ongoing, relentless effort,” it says.

In July, the Canadian government hastily amended its Public Service Employment Act, focusing on removing bias in its recruitment and giving its Public Service Commission authority to audit departments for discrimination. It has also established a panel to review the Employment Equity Act, which is one the key issues of the lawsuit. Currently there is a ‘visible minority’ category within the Act that places all minorities in one group. Those behind the lawsuit say this means the government can choose people from other ethnic groups when hiring and promoting, exclude black people, and still remain within the law.

Nicholas Marcus Thompson, one of the original 12 claimants of the lawsuit, says the Canadian government is “taking some steps” to address the root cause of the problem. “We have had discussions about creating a mental health fund to support workers and those discussions are ongoing,” Thompson says. But he adds that the government is giving mixed messages. “In not giving a clear direction, it’s quite troubling for workers who want to see a settlement. We could easily resolve the ‘certification’ and begin settlement talks,” he says.

Significantly, the lawsuit isn’t just seeking damages. Black Class Action, which is co-ordinating the suit, also wants equal representation of black employees across all levels of the public service that is identical to the general population at 3.8%, and an external reporting mechanism so workers can report racism and harassment. The government has until June 29 next year to file its response to the case.

Biden moves to tackle ‘entrenched racial disparities’

Within the US federal workforce, president Biden has resurrected a diversity, equality, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) drive that started with President Obama. Agencies were told to “review the current state of their diversity” and develop plans that would remove any potential barriers to diversifying the workforce. It includes diversity, inclusion and accessibility training, the elevation of diversity officers, a review of pay inequity and a reduction in unpaid internships across federal government. Agencies were expected to complete their detailed DEIA plans by October.

Shalanda Young during a tour of the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Ukraine in her previous role of Democratic deputy staff director for the House Appropriations Committee

Boosting diversity within the federal government is a key tenet of the “whole-of-government equity agenda” that, on his first day in office, Biden declared was needed due to entrenched racial disparities in public institutions and the convergence of economic, health and climate crises. In doing so, he acknowledged not only the importance of rooting out racism in government agencies but of diversifying the federal government so that those advising on and implementing policy and public services reflect the citizens and communities those policies will affect.

Biden has ordered departments to evaluate all their policies and procedures – from budgeting through to procurement – to expose and drive out racial bias. He says that closing racial gaps in wages, access to higher education, and lending opportunities could add an extra US$5 trillion in GDP over the next five years.

Shalanda Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget is leading the implementation of the agenda. She gave agencies until August to review their procedures and expects full action plans to be delivered by January next year. “It is a difficult realisation that federal agencies have not fully delivered value to all of their constituents,” she said in a report to the president. She says the government has “never before undertaken a whole-of-government equity agenda” and concedes that it will require long-term change management.

Strengthening the Crown-Māori relationship

Heather Baggott

Across the globe in New Zealand and its government is in the throes of implementing its Public Services Act 2020. This is the first new act governing its public services for 30 years and is designed to set its future “context and expectations”, most notably on diversity. One of the act’s five priorities is strengthening the government’s relationship with its Māori community, the first time this has been “codified”. It places a responsibility on its public service commissioner, currently Peter Hughes – who sits on Global Government Forum’s content advisory board – to ensure that Māori are adequately represented in the public services. Around 18% of its chief executives are Māori, and, although the Māori pay gap stands at 9.3%, it is down from 9.9% in 2019. Hughes says there has been some progress but “we need to go harder and faster”.

In October, Heather Baggott was appointed as a second deputy public service commissioner to work alongside Hughes. Baggott, previously the deputy commissioner for leadership, diversity, and inclusion, is the first Māori to hold the role and helped draw up the Crown-Māori provisions in the Act. She supported the creation of the Office for Crown-Māori Relations and the repositioning of the Ministry for Māori Development. Baggot’s role is to co-ordinate the push for Māori diversity across its public services – comparable to that seen in its successful gender equality push. “It’s not left to individual agencies to do their own thing,” Baggot told Māori News. “We are doing it together. All agencies have detailed plans in place to lift their Māori capabilities. We want to see a real shift in the public services in a way that’s never been done before.”   

‘Institutionally neglectful’

In the UK, the civil service has been trying to improve its ethnic diversity and drive out institutional racism since the late 1990s. Among the initiatives introduced are fast-track apprenticeships, diversity champions, a civil service leadership academy, and a diversity dashboard to collate the most accurate employee data. The latest figures show some success, with the number of its civil servants from an ethnic minority background now at a record high of 14.3%, compared to 5.3% in 1999. Further change is on the way. The government is soon to publish a new diversity and inclusion strategy for its civil service, as part of new reforms. However, there are fears that this may shift the focus from tackling ethnic diversity, especially in senior leadership roles. Ethnic representation dips to its lowest level in the senior civil service, at 10.6%, with no black or ethnic minority permanent secretary or director generals in post since 2015.

Sir Suma Chakrabarti

Victoria Jones, equality officer at the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, says the stalled progress when it comes to higher ethnic representation in leadership roles isn’t down to lack of talent, but cultural barriers and biased recruitment and promotion practices. She is one of those who fears that the government is about to shift its focus to improving socio-economic diversity, in line with its policy on ‘levelling up’ the north with the south of England. “We haven’t won on protected characteristics; we haven’t solved those issues yet and this can’t be at the cost to those groups,” she warns. “When creating policy, it’s important we have people from diverse backgrounds involved. We want to see that as a priority for the senior civil service.”

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, who became the UK’s first British Asian permanent secretary in 2002, says the civil service is no longer institutionally racist but says it is “institutionally neglectful”. He told Global Government Forum: “The current government needs to say it matters to them. They will say ‘look at the non-white people we have in the Cabinet and look at our non-white special advisors’, but I don’t think they have pushed the civil service on this.”

Chakrabarti says political impetus is essential as well as senior civil servants acting “counter culturally” by taking the lead to identify and develop the next generation of leaders. “If you don’t have a passion for something, then nothing will happen. Things only moved because there was a group of us, of outsiders, who were deeply bothered,” he says.

While many of the new initiatives in Canada, the US, New Zealand, and the UK illustrate a long-term commitment to improving diversity, they also show that there is a long way to go in solving the complex and historic issue of institutional racism. Canada’s class-action lawsuit may well push governments to acknowledge past wrongs and to further revaluate – and prioritise – their ethnic diversity strategies.

About Karen Day

One Comment

  1. Sonia Warner says:

    Thank you for bringing this to light. I attach a link to a report on my own case of racial discrimination.

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