In January of this year, I took on senior level responsibility for leading the NAO’s people agenda as we reviewed and reset our strategy. I quickly recognised that that this was to be a significant undertaking for the organisation, with much work to do if we are to become the exemplar employer that we aspire to be.
What I did not and could not know at the time was how our world would be transformed over the course of a few months. Firstly, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, having to deal with its impact on our people, as well as, in the fullness of time, covering it in our programme of work. Secondly, the consequences of the killing of George Floyd, highlighting the injustices faced by black people not only in the USA but here in the UK as well.
I have long been interested in the issues of racism, from witnessing the demonstrations and riots of the 1980s in my teens. My heritage on my father’s side, whilst not drawn directly from slavery, is the result of the importation of indentured ‘coolie’ labour brought from India to replace the slaves who had previously worked the sugar cane fields of Mauritius. And I have experienced both direct and indirect prejudice, and yes racism, on many occasions throughout my career.
On the one hand, we have been here before, witnessing tragic events which shine a spotlight on the devastating effects of racism on our communities and reminding us of our country’s history of slavery and colonialism. What feels different this time is the acceptance that racism exists throughout our society, rather than the issue being swept under the carpet. It gives me hope – less ‘it doesn’t happen here’ and more ‘this is an important conversation for the nation’. Change may, finally, be upon us in a new wave of civil rights that feels essential, immediate and in step with the times we live in.
But change is not an external force – all change starts with people taking personal responsibility for their actions, and organisations putting their own houses in order. I and my senior colleagues are committed to accelerating the NAO’s progress in becoming a genuinely inclusive organisation which embraces and values difference and supports our people to bring the full breadth of their thinking, experience and skills to work.
At the forefront of our new strategy is our people, it is our commitment to bringing about genuine change in the lived experience of colleagues from all backgrounds, but especially our black and minority ethnic colleagues who have not always been well served by our ability to embrace their talents and enhance their opportunities.
As an organisation whose very purpose is to hold government and public bodies to account for their progress in improving public services for all communities, we recognise that we cannot speak with authority if our own record on diversity and inclusion is open to question. Therefore, our aspiration is to be an exemplar employer in all respects, but with a focus on key areas, such as BAME representation at senior levels in our business, where we have the most progress to make.
We also need to ensure that our work, such as our Windrush report, continues to highlight inequalities in the way public services are delivered and secures deep and sustained improvement in the outcomes for the most vulnerable groups in society. The vast statistical differences in the impact of COVID-19 on different ethnicities and socio-economic groups is raising important questions that need examining.
We are evidence-led when assessing the services of others and must be equally evidence-led in our assessment of ourselves. Doing so will help us to openly acknowledge the challenges we face in achieving sustained improvement in our approach to equality, diversity and inclusion for all our people. As an organisation we are particularly dissatisfied with the progression rates for BAME colleagues in recent years. We need to make change quickly and remove barriers to progression wherever we find them.
This is a serious commitment which requires deep and permanent change and we are putting in place a range of measures to realise our ambitions. We are building on recent progress in improving the diversity of our graduate intake by applying rigorous requirements for diverse shortlists in all our recruitment and promotion campaigns. We have also launched our first diversity mentoring scheme which is giving our senior leaders much richer insight into the experiences of female, black, disabled, LGBT+ and underprivileged colleagues. Also, each member of our executive team takes an active role in sponsoring one of our diversity networks so that their voice is heard at the most senior levels of our business.
We will shortly be publishing our 2019-20 Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report which provides an honest and transparent assessment of where we see that tangible progress has been made, but also sets out clearly where we have more to do.
The recent launch of our new five-year strategy highlights our commitment of having a diverse, inclusive and healthy workforce as a key enabler in delivering our strategic priorities. We will be consulting on our new Diversity and Inclusion Strategy for 2021-23, which will support us in realising our ambition of being an exemplar employer, where all colleagues can realise their full potential irrespective of background.
I am conscious that statements of aspiration can often sound hollow without clear actions and demonstrable improvements, but as senior leader for the NAO’s people agenda I am fully committed to seeing genuine, sustained and beneficial change for our people and know that I have the support of my colleagues to make this happen.
Reshaping our culture and bringing to life our new values, which include respect and inclusion at their heart, will be key to this. So too will practical actions to revise our HR and other policies and practices which we know can reflect or enable unconscious bias.
So, there is plenty for us to get on with. But my personal passion and commitment to the equalities agenda, born from my own heritage and life experiences, both professional and personal, mean that I won’t be satisfied until the NAO is a fantastic place to work for all.