The challenge of diversity

Photos by Tangerine Event Photography [www.tangerineeventphotography.co.uk]

Public sector leaders from across the country got together in Manchester in January to try and unlock some tricky challenges. I’d been asked to work with iNetwork, the event organisers, on an opening discussion about public service innovation that could stimulate some critical thinking.

As I’ve discovered about myself, although I can come across as quite forceful in some situations (I blame the cropped hair and the new fitness regime), my own personal style on an event stage is very much to allow the other participants to express their individual points of view in a conversational context. I won’t seek to either embarrass anyone, or aggressively press them into slipping up and I don’t ask people for comments on something that isn’t in their sphere of influence or expertise.

My function is to give the audience the best possible insights into the experiences of the interviewee. As a former journalist I’m very driven by the power of storytelling. That’s not to say anecdotes are better than evidence, but that experiences illuminate understanding.

I say all of that because the event I chaired was on the challenge of diversity. Phenomenally self conscious of the fact that I’m an educated middle-aged white man, it was nevertheless my responsibility to trigger the conversation and audience engagement around why diversity is important, not least because I believe it. I hope I avoided mansplaining, or telling anyone what’s wrong with their perspective.

Handily, the story Bury Council’s interim chief executive Pat Jones-Greenhalgh has to tell is a compelling one. From hairdresser, to care assistant, through the ranks, to be chief executive at the council where she’s devoted her life to public service. Understanding the diversity of a team and of all colleagues is crucial to maintaining a positive working culture in the fast changing world of local public services.

It’s one thing to recruit and promote individuals in order to satisfy a well-meaning diversity agenda. What I was interested in exploring was how organisations then embed behaviour and culture that takes on board characteristics that a more diverse workforce delivers, and embracing the virtues of that difference. It’s a danger that we create groups that may look very different, but all think the same.

I also wanted to consider what a workplace that embraces neurodiversity would look like and feel like and why it is important. Is there any evidence that making our workplaces more suitable for people with Autism, ADHD and other conditions, also makes public services more responsive and appropriate to a large part of the community.

There’s a project at the BBC which is exploring how to better support people with what they term ‘hidden disabilities’, focusing on their strengths and talents, utilising the aptitudes and abilities of individuals with neurological conditions. Much of it aims to dispel the myths, perceptions and even prejudices people may have about these conditions, especially in employment, but the bigger challenge is to shift organisational thinking from a position of compensating for a deficit and really embracing how diversity becomes an asset.

I imagine I’ll be returning to this again soon, and I do have a stake in all of this, but for now there’s a small marker. Hope that’s OK.

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