Over the past few months, I have been delving into the psychological research conducted by practitioners of Behavioural Economics in my ongoing quest to understand why some staff with disability experience ongoing discrimination, and why change is sometimes painfully slow.
My aim has been to understand what and why, rather than take an accusatory tone that implies there is blame that should be assigned. Things are the way they are because of who we are. In short, the challenges of making Disability Inclusion real are not bugs. Rather, they are features we need to evolve into their next stage of potential.
In this set of essays, I will reflect on how accountability is something we must look at more closely. I was gently chided by a reader for making some essays too long, so I will keep this one to no more than the equivalent of 4 pages at the most. I expect 2 more of a similar length – but maybe 3.
The Virtue of Business
Public service has never been a theme much discussed in any of the 8 departments I have worked in. In recent decades it has been there discussion in the background, as kind of warm glow. But it has never been something thought to merit a deep dive. What does it mean, and why does it matter?
As inclusion has become an important theme, spurred on by anti-discrimination legislation and UN Conventions, its moral and economic dimensions have become important. The economic dimension has become a
subject of particular inquiries.
Our communities are becoming more openly diverse through migration, and acceptance of differences that have always been with us. These were once part of fixed social structures that validated, or invalidated, human worth through inclusion, or exclusion, on grounds of gender, sexuality, religion, race, disability or states of health – physical or psychological.
In business there is a clearly delineated bottom line that is measured in unambiguous terms – profit. There are moral dimensions to how that profit is generated, of course. A business conforming to anti-discrimination law has a profit motive to embrace diversity and inclusion. Done well, it improves the bottom line.
This means a business can obey the law, be in tune with contemporary community trends, and improve its bottom line by adopting a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion. It also means it can use productivity and profitability as a measure by which it can hold its leaders and business units accountable.
That’s the potential at least. The reality is more complex, because not all businesses keep such a keen eye on the economic performance of individual business units. The well-run ones do. Keeping skilled staff, reducing recruitment demands, lowering the rate and cost of absenteeism, and building and keeping high performing team all improve the bottom line.
Well run businesses engage experts to help them perform better. Those experts conduct research, apply their findings, and then they write books. The goal of these businesses is to provide a service/product that will generate a profit of acceptable level and moral quality. The goal of experts is to help businesses – and then get their insights into the public sphere.
This is a clear foundation for assessing the accountability of participants in the business. The rest of us can learn from the extraordinary growth in personal and organisational psychology.
Public Service is Different
Now and then, there are arguments about whether a public service should be provided by a for-profit business. Some areas of government enterprise have been privatised. The ‘profit motive’ has been seen to inspire people to work harder and better. For-profits keep costs lower. But they also extract profit from the available funds. Their track record varies from okay to woeful. At least I have not come across any glowing success stories. I’d be happy to be disabused of my possible bias.
However, the bottom line for a public sector is sufficiently different – and more complex than simple cost control and profit generation. The revenue raised does not come from trading. The departments and agencies are not generally involved in delivering products or services that are paid for by users to cover costs and make a profit. The income and the output are not tightly related through cause and effect. This is not true of state-run enterprises, of course, but they are not the dominant function of a public sector.
A public sector has, of course, a clear financial accountability – to spend the money raised by taxes and charges in a way that delivers the most amount of good to all people in a given state or nation. This is where things get interesting in terms of accountability.
A public sector is accountable to the community in a way a private business is not. The community is both shareholder and customer, and governments ideally should be advocates for both roles equally. But how does that play out in NSW, representing 8 odd million shareholder/customers? It creates a level of complexity no business has to face. So, while there is a financial bottom line, it shares its place with other factors as well. Among these are the individual service objectives of each cluster, department, and agency.
Figuring out what constitute the best accountability metrics for a public sector is no easy feat. This is complicated by the size and composition of the workforce. Now let’s add into the business-as-usual demands a requirement to meet diversity targets. Here things get very interesting, and I will focus on just disability to explore this.
The NSW Premiers Priorities set a target of 5.6% of the NSW public sector workforce being people with disability by 2025. Note, this is not a minimum of 5.6% per department/agency, but across the sector. This is, for me, a significant weakness in terms of equity, but that is for another essay. The NSW Premier’s Priorities were introduced at the end of the 2018/19 financial year. This will be 3 years ago at the end of the 2021/22 financial year.
I believe that the NSW public sector has already hit that modest target (the UK Civil Servicerate is 10% among the 34% who have declared their disability status and “only” 5.4% among senior civil servants). The 2021 PMES results shows 5% across the sector, but in a range from 2% to 12%. While recruitment methods must be improved to eliminate disincentives, biases, and discrimination in hiring people with disability, a greater emphasis on changing workplace cultures is critical.
The creation of a safe work environment in which staff with disability can be open about their needs for workplace adjustments and accommodation is essential if there is any realistic hope of surveys showing the actual level of staff with disability.
Importantly, while the PMES results are grounds for hope, internal reporting across the sector show results significantly lower. What will be the metric used to affirm the 5.6% is hit or missed? Internal workforce surveys or anonymous PMES results? It must be the former. Hence the gap between the present situation and the target is so much greater.
Accountably Hitting the Target
Having a target without a means of hitting it is problematic. It’s like setting up a bullseye; but omitting the important fact that not only are there no skilled archers, but no bows or arrows. The people who have been charged with hitting the target have good intent, but only a vague idea of how to make the bow, bowstring and arrows – with which they then must become proficient.
Clearly it is unjust to hold people to account to hit a target without skills and tools. It is even more problematic when senior leaders are unaware of the skills and tools needed.
The presumption has been that getting to the target is more about recruitment, and that sorting out recruitment practices isn’t all that difficult. It is. Research on decision-making is clear that biases can derail the best intent in recruitment – and that anti-bias training isn’t effective. Also, this isn’t just a challenge for new staff, it applies also to existing staff fearful of disclosing a disability when seeking a promotion – despite assurances.
The greatest challenge is changing workplace culture, and here we come to the role of leaders, the need for plans, strategies, upskilling and how to create a framework of accountability.
As we think through what accountability means in the context of supporting staff with disability, we enter a realm of complexity that is well-researched in diverse areas, but not knitted together to offer guidance for advocates for Disability Inclusion in the public sector.
In my next essay I will reflect on this complexity, and how we can begin to assemble the means, and acquire the skills, to hit the target. Then the means of accountability can begin to take shape.