Is Black Lives Matter making a difference?

By Julie Towers | 08 June 2021

Improving diversity and inclusion has always been at the heart of the work local government does. A commitment to localities and work with citizens gives the sector true insight and understanding into the communities it covers; and its commitment to developing a workforce reflective of local communities has always been high on the agenda. But there is no doubt that Black Lives Matter (BLM) has supercharged the issue.

Although the movement has been ongoing since 2013, activism accelerated after George Floyd’s murder. Since last May the whole local government community has been talking, reflecting and thinking about its approach to Black communities and employees – and there has been a renewed focus on service design, engagement strategies, community relations and on their role as employers to make change happen.

In May 2020 we at Penna were privileged to join clients, candidates and colleagues for listening and sharing sessions, and we guided senior leadership teams to support them with the uncomfortable conversations that were needed to help everyone think through and articulate what had happened, what we were feeling, what we had learnt and what we needed to do to end racism. The openness, kindness and humility made for compelling listening and most importantly learning.

Robin Tuddenham from Calderdale MDC was one of the first chief executives who shared with our aspirant chief executive (ACE) network his own personal thinking and, alongside his corporate leadership team, made active commitments to change. Catching up with Robin one year on it was good to know they were making progress: ‘The death of George Floyd last summer was a moment that reverberated through our communities and our workforce in Calderdale. It has shifted irreversibly how we think and operate as a council and a system.

‘Our thriving race equality network has become a key voice in shaping both our policies and how we deliver services not just in the council, but with our partners. From our ongoing response to the pandemic, our capital programme, our new leisure centre and train station, to how our community pharmacies will work in the future, the network has been part of our emerging strategies and design.

‘We have changed our recruitment and workforce development approach, and have played a leading part in the West Yorkshire ‘Integrated Care System’ fellowship programme for minority ethnic staff, building an anti-racism movement across our public, private and voluntary sector, alongside other major employers such as the NHS and Lloyds Banking Group. The focus and impetus to deliver is with us each day. There is no going back.’

Ian Thomas, chief executive of Kingston LBC has never been shy about racism and talked openly to our ACE group in 2019 about the racism he suffered as a child, and the perspectives it brought to his leadership. Ian continues to be a strong voice for improving inequalities and shared with his Twitter followers recently an infographic that outlined the actions taken in the last 12 months to tackle inequality.

He commended the work done by the staff for responding to the challenge and for members for setting the bar high. But he was also quick to say: ‘It is to our shame, as a society, that there is still so much work to do.’

Thoughts echoed by Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy who said: ‘Black lives matter, and the last year has made a lasting difference to not tolerating when injustice is brushed under the carpet. But it reinforces too, more than ever, that there is so much left to do.’

Leaders from around our network have been galvanised into conversation, listening and most importantly acting; and there’s not a recruitment, development or talent conversation happening that doesn’t have diversity and inclusion at the forefront. The conversations are open, raw and challenging – senior leadership teams, members and HR professionals all exploring the opportunities as well as the challenges of improving the diversity of their workforces. Conversations that are deep and testing, that go way beyond the tick box, and get to the heart of how a more diverse candidature can be secured.

Clients are prepared to consider pre-application positive action, positive support, targeted and levelled up search, step up development and sector transition packages and focusing on strengths and potential, not just experience.

Tracey Connage, HR director at Harrow LBC – who have been highly proactive in their diversity recruitment – recently explained: ‘BLM has brought race to the forefront of the equalities agenda, we are learning to listen and talk to staff (however difficult) about how systemic racism impacts our society, organisations and lives. For large employers with staff from Black, Asian and multi-ethnic backgrounds, we have had to question how real meritocracy cannot produce all white (mainly male) leaders. We are actively committing to developing our talent and leadership diversity. As a Black HR professional, I recognise that long-term culture change is the ultimate goal. In the meantime, BLM has helped put us on the right track, acknowledging yes there’s a problem and that we can change working lives for the better.

The Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA) has led from the front on this issue and through their membership they have been sharing learning and experience with HR professionals across the public sector. Gordon McFarlane, vice president of PPMA and assistant director, corporate services at Leicestershire CC said: ‘It’s hard to believe that we are more than a year on from the tragic death of George Floyd. There has been so much emotion, anger and strong reaction to what happened. But the events have also got people talking more openly about BLM, seeking to better understand the history, the systemic problems, and also how to move things forward positively.

‘It feels more important than ever that the HR community should focus on equalities and inclusion – making it real, tangible, owned – and that we all embrace the open conversations which will help to lead to greater understanding , change of culture and ultimately a more cohesive society.’

And it’s not just in the UK we are seeing this call for change. Alex Fleming, president of Northern Europe for Adecco reflecting one year on, said: ‘Employers and leaders now recognise they have an important part to play to create change. This is not only due to it being the right thing to do for employees and society as a whole, it also creates a strong and sustainable employee value proposition, something that is essential to attract and retain the best talent in the market.

‘Clients are also demanding more transparency from their suppliers when it comes to their diversity, equity and inclusion policies and data, in fact, it is increasingly being included in contractual obligations which is a positive move in the right direction.’

We have seen significant moves in the right direction, but there is clearly much more to do, and we hope like Robin said, there is no going back. Penna’s lead for diversity and inclusion, Alexis Curtis-Harris, certainly has new belief: ‘I’m hopeful that long overdue conversations are now being had, that leadership is now taking accountability for driving visible change, and that uncomfortable discussions are becoming more comfortable. Within workplaces, it is easy for people openly to state that they aren’t racist, and they believe in change. But we need people to be actively anti-racist and be the drivers implementing that change.

‘And while positive steps in the workplace have been made, I want to see more giant leaps. I want to see more learning, training and education. Further reviews and updating of internal policies. And most importantly I want to see continued development, opportunities, support and elevation of Black staff in the workplace.

It has been a year that we will never forget, and in the words of Gianna Floyd, her ‘daddy changed the world’.

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna

Julie.towers@penna.com

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