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Responding to an increasingly diverse society is essential if public services are to meet their full potential, Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, reported to Parliament today.

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This report – the first of its kind by the NAO – looks across Whitehall at the way in which government bodies are taking steps to better tailor their services to the needs of these diverse groups.

This reflects the increasing emphasis of the Government, not only to improve the diversity of the Senior Civil Service, but to design services around the different needs of the diverse citizens who make up modern society.

The NAO report is based on a survey of 131 government bodies, assessing their performance under each of the Government’s six key diversity strands: disability, gender, race, religion and belief, age, and sexual orientation. In addition, the NAO used interviews with both public sector staff and stakeholder groups. The NAO found that knowledge of customer diversity, the diversity of the workforce, and success in meeting diverse needs through service delivery, tended to go hand in hand. At the same time, the report highlights case studies of successful delivery where staff involved were not representative of the groups they were serving – but where the crucial factor was their willingness to engage with and respond to stakeholder groups and individual service users.

The report selects four successful initiatives and highlights the lessons that can be learnt from them. The Crown Prosecution Service gives an example of good consultation with stakeholder groups as it prepared to launch a Public Policy Statement on its approach to the prosecution of racially and religiously aggravated crime. In Bristol and North Somerset, the Inland Revenue’s outreach activities in the Sikh and Chinese communities have helped ethnic minority businesses and individuals understand and comply with the tax system. Through successful engagement with the community, a Women’s Study Group in Birmingham is meeting the educational needs of a diverse community. Finally, the National Gallery’s “Art Through Words” programme has helped to make parts of its collection accessible to blind and partially sighted blind people.

In terms of its own staff, the Civil Service as a whole is broadly representative of the wider population in terms of gender and race. At senior grades, while it is still far from being as representative, it is making steady progress on its targets for increasing the percentage of women and people from ethnic minorities. However, there appear to be particular challenges in improving the workforce representation for disabled people. Unlike the ratios for gender and race, there is a continuing shortfall in the ratio between disabled staff and the wider population, not just at senior grades, but at all grades throughout the Civil Service. Some 13.6 per cent of the economically active population of the UK are disabled in some way; but only 2.3 per cent of the Senior Civil Service have declared they are disabled. The Government recognises that further progress is needed, and is putting in place a number of policies to address this.

The NAO survey reveals that government bodies seem less confident of their performance in meeting needs connected with race, than with other diversity strands. This could be because statutory race equality duties are forcing departments to focus their attention on areas where they still have progress to make on race. At the same time, it is possible that it also reflects awareness of a genuine underperformance in service delivery relating to black and minority ethnic people.

Another finding of the survey is that government bodies possess much less information for religion and belief and sexual orientation than for other diversity strands. While there are obvious sensitivities relating to capturing information about these strands, departments may be failing to meet certain important needs if they have wide gaps in their knowledge. Where bodies find it difficult to collect information on these categories, they should seek to use anonymised or third party methods of capturing it, and do the same for encouraging feedback on their performance.

"Tailoring public services to address diverse needs can be seen as important, not simply as a moral end it itself, but also to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public services by making sure they actually benefit all those they are designed to serve. This report shows that there is much that government can do and is doing to achieve this, and makes recommendations that show how this might best be effected."

Sir John Bourn


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