Mission critical: building diverse teams to improve government outcomes

By on 25/06/2023 | Updated on 21/09/2023
A diverse team of colleagues sit together looking at a computer screen.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

Truly diverse and inclusive government organisations are better placed to innovate, to identify risk, and to deliver improved services for citizens than those that aren’t. But there remain barriers to progress. At a Global Government Forum webinar, four senior public servants from three countries discussed how to make headway

There is growing acknowledgment that teams made up of people from diverse backgrounds and with different perspectives tend to be more innovative and responsive, and often turn out better policies and improved services for citizens.

As a result, many governments have set targets to increase the diversity of their workforce – working to attract and retain women, people of various ethnicities, those who have disabilities or are neurodivergent, and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

In a Global Government Forum webinar held last month, public sector experts from the US, South Africa and the UK delved into why diversity in government is so important; how to approach recruitment in a way that fosters the creation of diverse teams; and how to measure progress against diversity and inclusion targets.

Here, we present the best bits of the conversation, with accompanying clips.

Tia N. Butler, director and chief human capital officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the US, began with an explanation of an executive order signed by president Joe Biden in February which aims to advance racial equity and support underserved communities through the federal government.

She spoke about diversity in the context of the CMS, which administers and oversees federal healthcare programmes relied upon by 160 million Americans.

And she shared her perspective on why workforce diversity helps agencies to deliver their missions; how to build diverse teams, including the need for organisational culture change; and the importance of developing a strategy for attracting and retaining diverse talent.

On the latter point, she covered the need for diverse candidate pools and equity in selection processes – giving the example of a CMS hiring panel initiative.

She also highlighted the importance of accountability through collecting data and monitoring and reporting on progress.

Yoliswa Makhasi, director-general of South Africa’s Ministry of Public Service and Administration touched on the country’s background, in which black people, women, those with disabilities and those in younger generations were traditionally excluded from decision-making. The fact that she has become a public service leader is proof of the government’s progress, she said.

However, though the Public Service Act – an employment equity law designed to promote diversity in the workplace – has been in place since 1994, the government is falling down in some areas. For example, it is less than half way to achieving its target that people with disabilities make up 2% of the total public service workforce.

And, though South Africa does better than most other G20 countries based on proportion of women in the top ranks of the public service, there are pockets of government – management cadres, for example – where women are underrepresented.

Makhasi also spoke of the public service’s ageing workforce – compounded by slow economic growth and a rising wage bill which is impacting recruitment programmes – and her focus on attracting young talent. The government has begun to advertise jobs on social media and other digital channels to help reach young people, is working to remove financial and non-financial barriers to entry, and is looking at other mechanisms to incentivise young people to consider a career in public service.

Katherine Easter, chief people officer of the UK’s Pension Protection Fund (PPF) highlighted that diverse teams not only bring innovation of thought but improve risk management by being better able to identify where a project or programme might go wrong.  

She showed the webinar’s live audience a PPF video made to emphasise how diversity and inclusion  benefits the entire workforce, ran through the fund’s D&I strategy, and explained its decision to commission an independent review of its recruitment processes in a bid to identify indirect bias.

The fields the fund recruits in – pensions, investment management and specific technology areas, for example – tend to be filled with overrepresented groups, she said. In order to address this, apprenticeship schemes have been devised specifically to bring people from underrepresented groups into those fields.

She also touched on communication efforts; reverse mentoring, whereby junior members of staff from underrepresented communities coach members of the executive; challenging people’s perceptions of the skills needed to do certain roles; and the need to regularly check in with staff to gauge their experience of the organisation and how improvements might be made.

Crucially, she said, organisations must work in collaboration with people from underrepresented groups but must not expect them to help fix the problem.

Jane Wiseman, innovations in government fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School, in the US, framed diversity around three themes “innovation, welcome and fairness” – and with a focus not just on civil and public services but on law enforcement.

She used stories about the advent of the sports bra and of Barbie to illustrate how the perspectives of people who wouldn’t traditionally have been allowed ‘in the room’ are valuable and lead to innovation.  

There are many government organisations in which people do not feel heard or represented, she said, emphasising the impact on retention: “How many of us are going to want to stay in a job where no-one looks like us?”

She gave an example of a study of police recruitment videos which found that many didn’t feature a single woman or person of colour and that when a woman was featured, they spoke half as much as men.

It is vital, therefore, for organisations to think about the messages they’re sending out, she said, giving examples of the language used in job advertisements where use of particular words can play a big part in attracting certain groups and putting others off.

She also made a point about generational diversity. With people now working longer, for the first time in history it isn’t uncommon for people in their 70s to be working alongside people in their 20s. This helped organisations to draw from different perspectives but could also be tricky for managers, Wiseman said.

And she finished with a point about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. While key workers were thanked for the part they played in keeping countries going, “no-one thanked government workers” – but the last three years had been tough on them too. They are understaffed, overworked, stressed if not burnt out and under-appreciated. And this, she believes, amounts to a “crisis for the public sector”.

“I think to bring in fresh ideas is more urgent now than at any time in my 35 years of being in and out of government and being a supporter of excellence in government… I feel passionately about participating in this conversation about how do we bring more diversity, more energy and more ideas into government.”

Following the panellists’ opening presentations, they answered questions from the webinar audience.

They delved deeper into how to change organisational culture when there is resistance and what had been effective in cultivating equity and equality.

And they went into greater detail about the importance of setting diversity and inclusion targets, gathering and analysing data, and reporting on progress so that governments and organisations were transparent and held accountable.

Finishing up with the possible outcomes if progress on achieving true diversity and inclusion in government is not made quick enough, the panellists cited fears that momentum would be lost and opportunities missed, resulting in workforces that aren’t aligned with what governments or departments are trying to accomplish and further damaging already declining public trust.

But they are also hopeful for the future, foreseeing growing awareness of why diversity is important for agencies to deliver their missions and services; more welcoming working environments for the next generation; better storytelling around the value of a career in public service and better communication around change; more creative recruitment; and people and teams increasingly unwilling to accept the status quo and to build organisations that reflect their values.  

As Wiseman concluded, alluding to diversity and, in line with that, more creative solutions to government problems: “You’ve heard the saying, ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. I have a different way to phrase it, which is ‘when life gives you lemons, make a minted vodka lemonade’. That’s what I hope will happen in the future with public service.”

To learn all this and more, you can watch the full Diverse & thrive: how building more inclusive organisations can improve delivery webinar on our dedicated events page. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum, was held on 16 May 2023.

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *