The most significant and overriding theme that we identified in this review relates to the organisational culture at BHCC. We would just note here that an equalities programme is a change programme, and essentially a cultural change programme. The challenges facing BHCC in this respect are no different to the ones facing most institutions in this country. So, the fact that fairness and inclusion are not in the DNA at BHCC is by no means a remarkable finding. However, the precise nature of this at BHCC does need to be understood and acted upon for there to be any chance of long-term change and success with respect to its diversity and inclusion programmes.
There is a veneer of tolerance and an impression of good overall performance on equalities.
BHCC is seen as a beacon authority amongst its peers for its performance in equalities. It has won accolades and awards over the years for its achievements, and in relation to LGBT equality, these accolades have been well deserved. Brighton has been described as the UK’s ‘gay capital’ and is believed to have the highest proportion of same-sex households in the country. However, good performance in one aspect of diversity does not mean that there is good performance across the piece in relation to all aspects of difference. There is some misconception with respect to Brighton and Hove that this is the case. Coupled with this is the historical notion that Brighton is a 'tolerant' city. With a history of acceptance of different - even radical - views within its community going back hundreds of years, it is clear why people might think that discrimination and exclusion don't happen there. We feel that these beliefs and notions about the city have provided a veneer that veils the truth. BME people and disabled people do not enjoy the same experiences of inclusion as other groups, and corporate and community ignorance of this fact only serves to compound the challenges here.
Attitudes to equalities
This leads on to the attitudes to equality and inclusion at BHCC that we perceived during the course of this study. This assessment was by no means scientifically undertaken, but it was apparent amongst the groups and individuals we spoke to and also relayed to us by a number of people that took part in these discussions. We identified that these attitudes are in three layers:
- Benign neglect: by far the most prevalent viewpoint characterised by people disbelieving that the kinds of case studies and issues reported could really occur at BHCC, and that the organisation and people within it are really very tolerant, and whilst there may be some minor issues, these can be sorted. Why then the need for equalities approaches and policies?
- Pro-active for change: again, a not insignificant cohort characterised by people believing that BHCC's successes in work around sexuality and gender identity have clouded the reality with respect to far less success with tackling other forms of inequality, and are keen to see and be involved in the change for genuine inclusion
- Hostility: we see this very much as a minority position at BHCC. We did not encounter this directly in our fieldwork, but this was relayed to us in personal case studies, one-to-one interviews with some managers, and discussions at the BMEWF, other staff forums and with the BME staff discussion/focus group
Going forward, we believe that it is important for BHCC to capture this by including a relevant question in the annual staff survey, and to maintain a watching brief on these attitudes. We also believe that 'proactive for change' is an important cohort that BHCC should be capitalising on to deliver the equalities change programme - we address this later in the closing paragraphs.
This was by far the most common response in interviews and discussion groups when the question was posed about why change had not occurred as expected at BHCC. Overwhelmingly staff believe that there is a culture of acceptance of poor behaviour - some felt that this was linked to an overly laissez faire attitude to tolerance - tolerance defined as meaning that everything is ok and there are no boundaries. Is BHCC so tolerant that it tolerates anything - where is the line drawn? This links back to our findings in 2013 when staff complained then about the lack of a values and behaviour framework and no role models.
Coupled with this is the perception that when managers do attempt to address bad behaviour through the disciplinary process, they can be thwarted by the action of some (including, in some cases, union representatives). . There was also the experience of some cases being overturned at hearings and appeals. The reasons for this maybe complex and related to the facts of individual cases but there is a perception held by some managers that there is no point in challenging offensive or abusive behaviour.
It is of course critical that the council sets unequivocal standards of behaviour and ensures that everyone understands what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour and the expectations of standards of behaviour at work. The consequence of breaches of this code will be similarly understood and transgressions dealt with - and be seen to be dealt with - appropriately. A very detailed Behaviour Framework has now been rolled out for use in performance conversations. . The Behaviour Framework sets out standards of behaviour in four areas: How we manage ourselves; How we work together; How we shape our future and; How we lead and empower. The Behaviour Framework is enshrined in BHCC’s Our People Promise (see concluding paragraphs).
The culture of no consequences extends also to mandatory instructions that are ignored by staff and there are no penalties for these violations. For example, we were told of and observed during this study that instructions to attend compulsory equalities training was sometimes ignored - again with no penalties.
A lack of strategic thinking in the development and implementation of equalities plans and approaches.
We saw this in operation at BHCC on numerous occasions. We observed how this worked and saw patterns that indicated to us that this was embedded into the way that BHCC handles proposals and suggestions for equalities plans - especially when these proposals may come from the BMEWF. A risk assessment of all equalities proposals and suggestions needs to be completed to ensure that these proposals do not derail the overall strategic aims in the long term. Sometimes a proposal may be made that at the time may seem to be an answer to a stubborn challenge - but if it is not rigorously risk assessed it could effectively set the plans back eons, particularly if the risk involves losing the support of key stakeholders. This is not to say that BHCC should not take challenging risks, but it needs to be very clear about the nature of the risk, alternative approaches to address the situation, and whether the outcome is worth any potential losses.
Ill conceived and poorly thought through plans can lead to inconclusive/questionable outcomes which will shatter any illusion that something was being done about the problem, leading in turn to frustrations, and can threaten to undermine the overall strategy.
Some key questions to ask when risk assessing proposals/plans are:
- How will this proposal further/positively impact the overall strategy/corporate aim?
- What outcomes do we want from this?
- What are the risks associated with doing it this way?
- Are we willing to take those risks?
- What alternatives are available?
- What will come next and how will we handle it?
The council as a community leader
Under s 149 of the Equality Act 2010 BHCC (along with all public bodies, and other bodies in relation to their work in the delivery of services on behalf of public bodies) has the following duty:
The Public Sector Equality Duty
‘’Those subject to the equality duty must, in the exercise of their functions, have due regard to the need to:
- Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act
- Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not
- Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not’’
These three points above are known as the three arms of the duty, and the last two points demonstrate clearly that local authorities (and other public bodies that they work in partnership with, such as the NHS, the police, schools etc), are not just there to deliver services, but to build cohesive communities. The local authority has a central role to play here - as a strategic planning body, not only with respect to the environment, but also in respect to communities. It follows then that in order to carry out this function, the council must know and understand about its diverse communities.
Who do you think you are?
We tested this in our discussion/focus group work. We posed the following questions and facilitated discussions around them:
- Is the local authority a community leader?
- Does the local authority have a responsibility to help to create cohesive and peaceful communities?
- Does everyone in the community have a right to expect that (within the given parameters) their lives will be enriched/enhanced by the actions of their locally elected representatives and the organisation that they control?
Many people considered the council to be a service provider and how they delivered their functions/job roles reflected that, so there was a degree of ambivalence here. However, most were engaged and interested in this viewpoint. One or two people expressed their opposition to this, and their view was that the local authority is a service provider and not a builder of communities.
There was also a lack of knowledge about the rapidly changing ethnic demography in Brighton and Hove. Those people with school aged children were more aware of this, as this age group is where this phenomenon is most pronounced. Many Brighton schools have ethnic/racial profiles similar to London schools, with children who are fluent in 3/4 languages. Knowledge about the ethnic profile of a community is important to be able to deliver services that meet all needs, but a more profound/empathetic knowledge of community is necessary to be an effective community leader. The challenge for BHCC going forward is to understand the issues here and plan effectively for the future. What sort of organisation should BHCC be developing into in relation to these important demographic changes?
The Equality Governance Framework
The governance arrangements to manage equality and inclusion at BHCC is a hierarchical structure, ranging from individual staff members through a committee/group system with the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) overseeing and with ultimate responsibility at the top (see appendix 1). There are inter-relationships between the various committees/groups, so it is not a strictly 'top down' organism. We had discussions with all the key stakeholders in this system and attended a Workforce Equality Group (WEG) meeting and held a focus group with members of the various Directorate Equality Groups (DEGS) across the council. Our focus for this review was workforce equality and our assessment of the governance structure in that regard is that it is ineffective - both as a whole and in its component parts.
The DEGS discussion/focus group was a vibrant session with engaged and interested senior managers. The DEGS themselves however, work in silos in their individual directorates, with little sharing and learning with their counterparts in other parts of the council. They had never met as a group before our focus group meeting and commented on how useful they had found this discussion group. They had little understanding of how they fitted into the wider framework and how their work influenced the other parts of the structure and vice versa.
With respect to workforce equalities it seemed to us that the WEG should be the 'engine' of the system, where we would expect to find most of the energy driving change. Its membership is potentially very powerful - all the key stakeholders for workforce equality are represented here - the Equalities Team, the staff forums, the trade unions, HR - yet it lacked the energy needed to drive the change. The WEG operates as a council committee - relatively passively receiving reports from HR. There is questioning, but nothing very challenging and little dynamism. Data overloaded reports from HR should be constructively challenged here - trends identified and solutions offered. ELT accepts this reporting - without challenge, and it goes on. Reports overburdened with data are very difficult to read - important points are lost if the messages are not presented in a way that engages the reader. Data provides context and should be presented as appendices to underpin/provide evidence for the actions recommended under the themes/big picture story of the main report.
Who owns the Workforce Equality Strategy?
An important finding is that there is clearly an over reliance on HR as ‘owners’ of the strategy. It is seen as their responsibility and not as a corporate strategy - there is insufficient buy in from the council as a whole. A major shift is needed here for any future programme to have any currency.
Development support for staff forums
In the 2013 report we highlighted the need for development/support for some of the staff forums. We make that recommendation again here. In order for them to operate more effectively a keener understanding of the political nuances at BHCC is needed and how they can navigate their way through this to achieve the outcomes that they want - synchronizing their efforts accordingly with their partners. They just need to work a bit smarter and need some investment in their development to enable this.
Equalities Learning and Development (L&D)
As is the case with most local authorities, BHCC is facing a great challenge with respect to funding the learning and development (L&D) interventions that are essential to keep the council competent. There is no doubt that L&D at BHCC is under resourced generally and of course this is also the case with training around equality and inclusion. Equalities training at BHCC is mandatory - but as mentioned above there are no sanctions for teams or individuals that do not undergo the training.
Very little training is delivered in the traditional classroom group setting - as this is very expensive, currently the council are able to offer equalities classroom group training for up to about 70 people per year. Most of the training is delivered via web based online interventions.
We looked at the online training. We found the quality to be of a very basic standard, the content was out of date - so out of date in one instance that the information provided was wrong. The technology did not enable a seamless effortless journey - it was frustratingly difficult to navigate.
Unconscious Bias Training
At the time of this review, a large number of council staff had recently undergone unconscious bias training. This is an important equalities L&D intervention, and we were keen to understand how this was delivered and how it was received. It was delivered via a combination of online training followed up by team-based group sessions delivered by the team manager who followed a script/aid memoire that had been developed to coach the manager in how to deliver the training.
Most people that we spoke to during the interviews and focus groups had undergone this training. The reception was mixed. Some people reported a very positive experience, others far less positive. We believe there were a number of reasons for this outcome.
- Unconscious bias training is potentially the most challenging in the range of equalities L&D interventions and requires the skills of a confident and competent equalities trainer. It was very risky to roll this out without the requisite skills in house to deliver it. Most managers will not be ''confident and competent equalities trainers''. But clearly those managers who were interested and engaged in the subject, who studied the script and who were confident in their delivery were able to deliver a pretty proficient job. Others were not.
- With the likes of unconscious bias training - it is far easier to engage people who are receptive to the message. It's a much greater challenge to make an impact on those who are antagonistic or unreceptive to the subject. Here is where the skills of a competent trainer are required.
- But there is one issue that threatens to undermine anything gained from the unconscious bias exercise and that is that there has been no follow through. Raising awareness of unconscious bias is just the beginning of a journey through equalities learning and development. The next stage to this is learning how to manage the expression of bias. The question to be answered is ''now that I understand and am aware of my biases and how they can affect my behaviour - what do I do about it?, how do I manage it?'' The answer is missing at BHCC, and during our discussion groups one or two people who had enjoyed their unconscious bias training asked that very question - ''what now? - what do I do with this?''
We looked at the online training and the script for the trainers. Our view is that whilst the content could have been more sophisticated and the video more up to date - the most important learning points about unconscious bias itself were covered.
L&D outcomes and further challenges
We were told that the impact of equalities training on behaviour change at BHCC is minimal. That is the money spent on the current approaches is giving no return - a false economy, therefore. The great challenge for BHCC going forward is to develop approaches for equalities L&D that really do deliver value for money - that is affordable for the council but also crucially, that is effective. In order to do this BHCC first needs to be clear on exactly what they need their equalities learning to deliver and find the most cost-effective means of executing this. There are many avenues to learning, these need to be examined and the most relevant models exploited at a cost that is affordable.
It appeared to us that Communications at BHCC seemed not to have engaged with workforce equality issues at all. The Comms team seemed to be unaware of BHCC's equalities work in regard to their workforce. Consequently, the existing programme did not have a communications strategy built in. This has to be remedied going forward, with the Communications Team at BHCC involved in the development of approaches so that they are able to use their expertise to advise on and use, the most appropriate methods (using all media- social and otherwise) to promulgate the council's messages internally and externally.