Features: June 3rd, 2003

Diversity is Normal – Ignoring it isn’t

By Loraine Martins and Helen Goulding

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

Those active in the diversity and equal opportunities field have enjoyed a significant boost over recent years, not least because of European directives and a significant change in legislative emphasis heralded by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. By introducing the responsibility to ‘promote’ race equality specifically, and by extension equality and diversity generally, the legislation has enshrined a proactive approach to our activities. It has also moved equalities from an often defensive and isolating focus of problem-solving, removing barriers and redressing imbalances, to celebrating and valuing difference.

Since the early legislation on equality – such as equal pay and sex discrimination – in the1970s, public sector organizations have made some progress towards reducing discrimination. There remains, however, some way to go to move beyond compliance towards good practice. Organizations often claim that it is still not always obvious what needs to be done to actively promote equality and this lack of understanding or clarity often leads to inaction. There are institutional attitudes and behaviours that have an adverse affect on achieving real equality and truly valuing diversity. For example, diversity and equality are often crudely and incorrectly interpreted as shorthand for focusing on ethnicity or race.

Much of the work that the Audit Commission has examined indicates that a useful starting point is to agree their definition. A pragmatic approach that makes diversity and equality accessible to all, through developing a definition that fits the locality and objectives, can help to demystify them and demonstrate their relevance to all that the public sector does. For organizations wanting to strengthen their approach there needs to be a recognition that building capacity to acknowledge differences as normal and positive is a significant shift. In exploring good practice in diversity and equalities the Commission has identified five critical factors that support and underpin success.


In many organizations, responsibility for action on diversity is devolved entirely to specialist officers or the human resources department. This approach can have two effects. The first being that diversity and equalities remains the responsibility of others, the ‘specialists’. The second is to limit diversity and equalities to an HR function. Yet it is clear that equality and diversity are as much internal requirements for everyone as external service delivery considerations. Similarly, without visible commitment and leadership by example, attitudes towards diversity will continue to be slow to change. Increasingly, leaders will be expected to embody good diversity and equalities practices in their dealings with staff and the public alike. They will also need to show their commitment by investing in training and communication for staff and the public. Straight-forward briefings for everyone together with regular explanations and discussion of the issues help to show how each individual can promote diversity through their day-to-day work, whilst reinforcing positive changes in culture. There are a number of obstacles to gaining commitment from all staff. Concerns, for example, that an increased profile for diversity raises community expectations to an unrealistic level, or that one community group may be empowered at the expense of another or that institutional behaviours will remain unchallenged. These barriers need to be recognized and dealt with in a robust and constructive way that encourages and enables attitudes and practices to be improved. Financial commitment is essential. This can take the form of specific resources for particular activities, as well as inclusion in the regular budget headings. Diversity audits and cost/benefit analyses of desired changes can be valuable features of budget planning.

Involving the community

Organizations need to constantly measure and monitor the composition of their community, or they risk targeting services in a mono-cultural way. Understanding the variety and breadth of the community enables a better appreciation of the range of needs and therefore more appropriate responses. Monitoring and consultation tend to be most effective when driven centrally, as this helps to avoid the duplication or gaps that can occur when consultation is carried out by multiple departments acting in isolation. Consulting local people allows organizations to develop a shared vision that the community understands and engages with. This is a significant part of the challenge of community leadership. The consultation process can also help allay suspicion about approaches to equality, including the requirement for ethnic monitoring. It is important that the outcomes of any consultation must be clearly communicated back to local people. This means spelling out the reasons for consulting, the results and the likely outcomes that the community will see.


Diversity and equality are often viewed as additional activities that require special attention and resources. Mainstreaming is about bringing them into the core of what an organization does. In many cases this means making existing services as accessible as possible to the broadest range of users. Some organizations may still need to explore niche services for particular sections of the community, for example travellers, refugees, or people from minority ethnic communities. Institutions that are positive and communicate the provision of specific services in an upbeat rather than apologetic way, will build more local understanding of different needs, and perceptions.

Within the workforce, the profile of diversity issues can be raised through leading by example, by training and developing a critical mass of staff, and by regular communication and reminders. It is important that diversity strategies are translated into individuals’ action plans and performance management systems, so that it is clear how policy is to be put into practice. Specialist officers are an important resource and need to be spread evenly across an organization to ensure that all departments make consistent progress. It is important, though, that they are seen as resources whose role is to help move things along rather than as the only people with any responsibility for taking action to further equality and diversity. In the absence of in-house specialists, external expertise can be bought in, perhaps in partnership with organizations in a similar position.

Monitoring performance

For organizations to identify strengths and weaknesses in their approach to diversity and equality, performance data needs to be captured and analysed. Staff need to know which data is useful to the decision-making processes, and be equipped with the skills and technology to capture it. Some service users may need to be encouraged to submit the required data, and reassured about its significance and use. Once analysed, performance data needs to be translated into specific improvement plans, with measurable and time-limited targets that are easily understood by staff. The link between performance and any subsequent changes to the organization’s activities should be spelled out to staff, users and local people.


To establish diversity properly it needs to be kept in the forefront of people’s minds and given priority in the short, medium and long term. Quick win’ initiatives are valuable, but if they do not address real, current issues and deliver tangible – and lasting – benefits, staff, service users and the public become cynical. For continuous improvement, both short term and longer term targets are necessary, and need to be resourced. Those people planning sustainable action around diversity have to be realistic about the likely impact of their work, especially the time it takes for visible changes to happen. They also need to have an eye on external drivers like future legislation, trends in the community and ensure that any forward planning takes these into account.

Benefits of embracing diversity

If we were to amalgamate those groups that regularly experience discrimination (women, disabled people, older people, lesbians and gay men, and people from ethnic minority communities), they would form the majority of the community, so we are no longer, if it were ever true, serving ‘minority’ interests by addressing diversity and equality. For the public sector to respond appropriately to local peoples’ needs, it is good business to factor in diversity into objectives and targets. Institutions that fully embrace diversity can gain a number of benefits that improve efficiency, effectiveness and make economic sense. For example, staff will be able to engage more meaningfully with users and local people, and more effectively meet their needs. Organizations appear more attractive to broader range of potential employees. As the workforce becomes more diverse, a wider variety of perspectives can add value to institutional practices by challenging the usual ways of working, and identifying different ways of responding to needs or solving problems.

In the context of the public sector, the challenge is to understand diversity as a broad, inclusive concept. It is about understanding people, their differences and similarities. It is also about how people access services, treatment, employment and how services can have adverse impacts on people – and thus on our communities – because of a lack of appreciation of different cultures, traditions and practices. Equality is about ensuring that people are treated fairly and making this normal practice and behaviour.

Loraine Martins and Helen Goulding are with the Audit Commission.