The power of listening


A former colleague, Leanne Duggan, sent me a link to a great essay on blind people and audiobooks. She is featured in the essay, and it was great to know that her voice is being shared.

We have blind people to thank for the development of the talking book. It’s an interesting history – a debt of gratitude that should be known and acknowledged. The clunky tech of yesteryear has evolved into the sweet ease of an audiobook on a smart phone.

Please take the time to read the essay. It’s well-written and not long.

The greater gift

Audiobooks are now mainstream. They can be listened to as a specific intentional act, but they can also enrich commutes and the performance of tasks that take very little conscious attention. 

The benefits for blind people are obvious. For them audio is their primary means of access to entertainment and information. When we sit down to watch television, we use eyes and ears. In the days before television and the internet books were the go-to source, apart from radio. Without vision, books were inaccessible (with the exception of braille).

Audiobooks are a blessing to people with other disabilities – ones that making picking up and holding a book difficult, painful, impossible, or simply unpleasant.

My ability to hold things has deteriorated. What was once a sensual pleasure has become an ordeal (bibliophiles will know what I mean). I have been giving away my beloved hardcopy books, so they can be loved by others, and not remain now mute tokens of days gone, never to be recovered.

Audiobooks are a blessing also to those with no disability but may be time poor. You can’t walk and read safely, but you can walk and listen.


I can’t imagine life without audiobooks now. The essay gave me an insight into blindness I hadn’t thought about, and a chance to be grateful to those pioneers of talking books.

Positively Purple by Kate Nash


Kate Nash is the founder and CEO of PurpleSpace, a UK-based organisation devoted to fostering greater inclusion of people with disability in employment. 

I met Kate in 2018 when she was the key-note speaker at the Australian Network on Disability’s (AND) annual national conference in Sydney and ran a workshop on Networkology the next day. At the time I was Chair of the Department of Family and Community Services’ Disability Employee Network.

As I listened to Kate’s key-note address, it dawned on me that I was wasting time and squandering opportunity. I received a lot of accolades for my time as DEN Chair, which ended in March 2020. While there are many people who were critical to the successes that were achieved, I remain intensely grateful for that wakeup call that came from Kate as perhaps the most important influence.

Positively Purple is the best book on disability inclusion I have read. It is a book that executives must read if their organisation has expressed any commitment to disability inclusion, and they want to be an effective participant.

It is also a book leaders and members of Disability Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) must read. In an ideal world executives and ERG members would also join Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) leads in conversations about the book’s contents.

The insider perspective

Positively Purple is my top disability inclusion book for several reasons:

  • It is written by an insider with long lived experience of very significant disability and a career in disability advocacy, working with senior political and corporate figures.
  • It speaks directly to organisations at all levels – executives, D&I teams, and ERGs.

I am particular about saying “very significant disability” to denote the reality that for some people with disability, the lived experience is intense and relentless and lifelong. At age of 15 Kate began developing symptoms of Stills disease (juvenile idiopathic arthritis). The condition shaped her life in every respect – and in profoundly consequential ways.

This ‘insider’ perspective isn’t shared all that often. There are some great books about the lived experience of a specific type of disability that can be confronting but rewarding to read. This book is different. It uses stages of Kate’s personal story to trigger deeper exploration of themes by employers and employees.

The book is built on the foundation of a biographical story. But it’s not just an insider’s account of living with a disability. It provides a powerful narrative thread that creates opportunities to reflect on the lived experience, on the formation of personal identity and character – and on the development of disability inclusion practice principles that can guide organisations.

In part, the book traces Kate’s journey through employment at a time when disability inclusion was becoming a public and political issue (mainly the 1990s). Kate has worked in disability inclusion advocacy from the outset of her career. In fact, her career is an account of one facet of the history of the struggle for inclusion for people with disability in the UK. It is a remarkable story. The perspective of a person with skin in the game makes the personal angle potent. Kate’s story, as she evolves in experience and skill, is compelling in its own right.

The Networkologist is born

Kate’s career seems woven from threads of bold positive determination, an extraordinary ability to build and sustain alliances, and a clear-eyed awareness that what she wanted to achieve required strategic discipline.

This is not a book written by an objective researcher who has gathered, assessed, and reported on good things to do. Yes, Kate’s first book, Secrets & Big News: Enabling people to be themselves as work, might fit that description. Positively Purple is, in a sense, the story of a personal evolution – and that’s its value.

The personal evolution is toward being more effective as an advocate for, and worker toward, disability inclusion. Kate’s personal story is a subtle guide on how to build and preserve networks as an intentionally acquired skill.

In 2018 I was excited by the idea of Networkology because it filled in a gaping hole in my ability to be a good DEN Chair. There was method born of experience. There was a pathway to success that wasn’t hit or miss. 


As I read Positively Purple, I was finding insights I wish I had known about back in 2018, and others that have obliged me to reflect hard on my present perspective. It is harder to consider you might be wrong when you think you know.

I read the book on the Kindle app on my Mac. This enabled me to get the font size up enough so that I could read on the big screen while sitting back and exercising my dysfunctional ankles. It also meant I could take screenshots of passages or headings that merited deeper reflection. I gave each screenshot a brief name. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Share’, not disclose
  • Be prepared to invest
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance approach
  • Disability confidence concepts
  • Share your strengths
  • Eradicating shame
  • Behavioural change starts with a ‘have to’
  • Build adjustments into org DNA
  • A story of transition of identity

This last one was a theme Kate discussed several times. It is one that resonates with me strongly. Disability is often acquired. We had a sense of who we are before the disability (BD), and we must often adjust that sense after acquiring a disability (AD). For some this might mean owning the fact that you can’t see or hear as well as you used to – BD and AD are distinguished only by what can seem to be irritating and embarrassing sensory deficits. One of my former colleagues went from hearing perfectly well to being deaf. I went from walking freely to needing walkers and crutches. For us the BD and AD states were radically different. Either way – embarrassing or catastrophic – we must adjust our sense of identity. It helps when others are inclusive of our need to change.

Kate’s personal story is essentially a transition of identity – from being a carefree 15-year-old to a tirelessly positive advocate for disability inclusion. It’s a story we will all benefit from reading. People with disability will be strengthened. Others will gain insight that will clarify what they can do in support of disability inclusion.

As usual I include a link to Amazon so that those preferring an ebook of Positively Purplewill have ready access, but do please support your local independent bookseller if that is possible.

How to lead an ERG well


Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are strange things. They sit in a shadow land within an organization. They are not part of the normal formal power and influence hierarchy. They represent the voice of a specific minority community within the organization, advocating for its interests. This generally means seeking to stimulate change in favour of its membership. It also means representing a certain impatience its membership feels. 

ERGs often fall within the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) area because they tend to be formed to redress some kind of injustice or inequity that arises because of how the attributes of the membership are perceived and responded to by the other members of the organization as a whole.

While an ERG is formed and sanctioned as a change-agent organizations are inherently change resistant in DEI matters. This means that an ERG has a difficult, complex, and delicate role to perform. It must harness the natural membership’s impatience into a strategic and diplomatic impetus that can effectively drive desired change. 

For ERG leaders this is no easy task. In fact, being an effective ERG leader is extremely hard. The role is voluntary and must be performed alongside their ‘real job’. Some kind of time allowance will be made, but this will vary between organizations. But it is generally fair to say that time and attention will both be at a premium. 

So, ERG leadership is a difficult role that many will have to perform under less-than-ideal circumstances. 

In this essay I want to focus on leadership because, to put it bluntly, leaders can make or break their ERG. 

I want to talk about ERGs in general. I joined a Disability Employee Network (DEN) back in July 2010 and was the only remaining founding member when I left my department in June 2021. I was Chair for 3 years and 4 months. There were 3 preceding Chairs. I was the longest serving – entirely by accident rather than design. I stepped down in March 2020, with no desire for another term. 

The joys and perils of leadership

Being an ERG leader is rewarding but it is demanding. There are challenges and pitfalls to be overcome or avoided. 

Leading an ERG is no easy thing, though it can appear to be otherwise. So much depends upon what outcomes are expected, and how attaining those outcomes is imagined. 

Leadership is a deeply personal matter, and herein lies both pitfalls and opportunities. In most ERGs one person is designated as ‘the leader’. It’s a standard model in any organisation. We have Chairs, captains, managers and so on. Sometimes this works well, but mostly it does not. This is a really important consideration. It may surprise the reader but be patient.

Leadership is a difficult and complex role that is almost never performed at an optimal standard. I am not saying it is done badly, just that it can always be done better. This is something mostly recognised in hindsight.

The biggest impediment to being an effective leader is one’s ego. There are other impediments of course, but this has the greatest adverse impact.

I have been reflecting on leadership recently because of conversations about the fate of an ERG I was involved with. I have watched from a distance and was tempted to ask; ‘What would I have done differently’. That’s not a good or useful question. You cannot parachute yourself into a situation you are not involved in. Had you been involved, that situation would not have arisen. There would be an entirely different one – better or worse than the one being considered.

Leadership sometimes causes situations to arise. Other times it responds to internal and external events – and ameliorates or exacerbates the matter. I do not want to think in terms of leadership being done well or badly – but how equipped a leader is to handle a situation that arises. Leaders do their best, but their best is not always equal to the challenge.

Here I want to focus on 6 things that, for me, defined the key attributes of effective leadership. I am not saying I got them all right all of the time. I did my best. Those 6 things are:

  1. Ego
  2. Experience
  3. Strategy
  4. Teamwork
  5. Time and Attention
  6. Professionalism


I tried several times to become ERG Chair and was rebuffed by members. Eventually I got to be Deputy Chair – which was nothing at all. I got to be Chair only because the incumbent quit unexpectedly and moved to a different department – and I was deputy Chair at the time.

I wanted to be Chair because I thought I could contribute something to the role, but I didn’t know what. Two previous Chairs were moved by the same desire for service, but they were not very effective. Getting the job was one thing. Doing something useful with it was another. I had no idea whether I would be a good Chair

Being a Chair of an ERG can be something. It has status. You get invited to participate in events you wouldn’t be invited to otherwise. You get to meet senior leaders and other ‘important people’. You also get to run meetings and be the person in charge.

But it can also mean that nothing much happens. Being an ERG leader is a difficult and challenging role that demands a lot. It is hard work if you want to do it well, and it will be humbling. It is an act of service, not something to gratify an ambition, a need for status or a desire for power.

So many leadership roles become vehicles for working out unresolved personal psychological issues. That’s pretty much the landscape we all live in. So, it should be no surprise that this might happen in an ERG. However, let me be plain – it is a betrayal of trust of the ERG’s membership to aspire to leadership motivated by anything other than a commitment to service and a rational understanding that you are fit for purpose as a leader.


Leadership experience is essential. If you haven’t led anything before, an ERG is not the place to have on the job learning. The reason is simple. You make dumb mistakes when you are learning how to lead, and sometimes they are catastrophic – a reality that may become apparent only long after the fact. You owe other members of the ERG a duty to be fit for purpose as a leader.

I had held several leadership roles previously – in the public sector and in the community. I had made a few monstrous mistakes that led to miserable failures and deep enduring lessons. At the time I became DEN Chair I was an acting team leader during a time of powerful change in our organisation. My team members were deeply concerned about their continuing employment. They were understandably distracted. We managed to maintain quality output, stay together as a mutually supportive team and deal with the ongoing employment challenges. That turned out to be a very useful experience for me. 

I had also a long history of influencing others. I started off full of passion, and just got into trouble. I eventually got to be pretty good at making things happen through a lot of trial and error. By the time I became DEN Chair I had the fundamentals under my belt. At the time I didn’t understand any of this. I am writing with hindsight, with the opportunity to reflect on experience.


Leadership, to be effective, must be strategic. It is not easy to develop a strategic outlook if this is not already part of your way of doing things.

For some people just getting to be a leader is more than half the battle. Once in the role the dynamic energy of the campaign dissipates. I have heard of quite a few managers described as ‘disorganised’. They have passionately advocated for themselves as the best person for the job, and then delivered debilitating disorder and chaos once they have secured the role. ERG Chairs can be similar. 

We have a natural bias that leads us to over-estimate our abilities and downplay our weaknesses. 

Strategic thinking requires having an objective and a means of achieving it. You have a vision for the ERG, and the members agree with it. You then must set out how you will get to that outcome. It is here many leaders come unstuck. The vision of how to get there must conform to a reality in which other people behave in unexpected ways.

I have been recently seeking out informed commentary on military campaigns and have become interested in the idea of a military doctrine – a way of thinking about behaviour on a battlefield that is coherent, consistent, conservative of resources and focused on success. The military metaphor may feel uncomfortable, but all strategy is strategy, even if your approach is collaborative and kind.

My immediate goals, as DEN Chair were to rebuild membership numbers and ensure that the DEN represented all areas of our newly reformed department. I wanted to have an election as soon as possible – that took 15 months as it transpired – less time than I imagined. I had my goals, made them known and was accountable for my success or failure. I prepared monthly progress reports showing actions taken and an analysis of numbers.

ERGs are about changing the circumstances of their members for the better and too often organisations dictate the pace of change. There must be an impatience and a strategy for infecting the rest of the organisation with the same impatience.

This is where most ERGs fail. It is where leaders so often fail too. I have listened to conversations among ERG leaders who seem okay with slow progress and resistance to change. They hypnotise themselves and their members into accepting that things change slowly. Impatient members disengage and those who remain turn their ERG into a club.


Leadership is not a single heroic function. Some leaders do stand out as singular individuals, but none who are effective and successful would neglect the people who constitute their leadership team.

The best thing I did, after I rebuilt the DEN’s membership numbers, was create the Guidance and Action Team (GAT). This was a group of 15 volunteers who shared my impatience and wanted stuff to happen.

The fundamental rule of developing an effective ERG is the creating of a critical trinity of mutual support and regard – the ERG, the organisation’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT), and the organisation’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team.

This demands a lot of relationship building and maintenance – internally (GAT and membership) and externally (ELT and DEI). This is sensitive and hard work for an ERG’s leadership. It may be too much for one person, but ensuring it does happen, and keeps happening, is an essential strategic role for the overall leader.

An internal leadership team can be an essential distribution of talent, skills, and experience needed to ensure the ERG’s success. This is where a leader’s ego can be tested. Are they prepared to delegate representation? Are they happy going to a meeting with 2 members of the leadership team – and take the focus off them?

Another aspect of teamwork is succession planning. This may mean ensuring that there are maybe 2 people who could step into the leadership role at a moment’s notice.

An ERG leader may be a genuinely exceptional person. This happens now and then. Even so, seeing themselves as first among equals is even more important. Building an effective leadership team and developing a succession strategy becomes more critical.

Time and attention

Having the time to focus one’s attention on what must be done is vitally important. There is an expectation that an ERG leader will ‘donate’ a certain amount of their own time out of commitment to the cause. This is fair enough, but it must be balanced by a realistic time allowance provided by the organisation. This is sometimes not understood by an ERG’s line management. It is harder for executives who do not work to an award to appreciate that putting in substantial time outside of regular hours isn’t part of an ERG leader’s lifestyle choice – and should not be expected.

ERGs are created and supported because they are expected to do valuable work within the organisation. They drive change that supports the welfare of a certain group of staff members. This concern for the welfare of a minority is the rightful duty of the organisation and it should be relegated to ‘one of those things we will get around to when we have time’. This change is hard to make, and the ERG is properly seen as a vital ally that must be enabled to deliver its side of the bargain.

The DEN of which I was a founding member met for a full day once a quarter. Back in 2010 this looked like a generous allowance – and in many respects it was. But the reality is that you don’t drive significant change that way. 

I was able to not only more than double the formal meeting time by creating the GAT but also lift the overall activity of the DEN to a much higher level. I was fortunate in that, as Chair, I was permitted at least a full day a week during critical stages. Seven months after I left the Chair, my predecessor was offered, and accepted, the opportunity to be a fulltime Chair.

I am not arguing for that now, but it did affirm the vital importance of having those critical resources of time and attention.

Neuroscience research shows that being under time pressure and having competing demands on attention degrades the quality of work done. The heroic vision of the flat-out leader juggling competing demands is actually a scenario for poor decision making. It may be true that some leaders are constitutionally suited to thriving in the ‘fog of war’, but most are not.

To be effective, an ERG leader must have sufficient access to those vital resources – time and attention. An organisation must first value the ERG sufficiently to provide adequate access to both. The ERG leader must demonstrate they use both to good effect.


Having laid a strong claim for sufficient time and attention for an ERG leader to perform well I want to consider the final element – professionalism.

As DEN Chair I was keenly aware that I was accountable to the membership for the actions I was undertaking on its behalf, and to the organisation for the way I was using its resources (my and other people’s time mainly). I was also considering my reputation and standing.

After creating the GAT, I set a standard. We had to be professional in everything we did, operating at the same standard as a business unit. We had objectives – outputs to be delivered, outcomes to be achieved, and a reputation to build and maintain.

There was no obvious expectation that we would or should be professional. We were an ERG – a volunteer part-time group. What standard should we work to? As individual employees we were required to behave in a professional manner. Why expect anything less of ourselves as DEN members and representatives?

Looking back to the origins of the DEN I can see that there was no clear vision for how the DEN should operate. Our first Chair was a senior manager, and his conduct was very professional, but there was no expectation on the rest of us. That was a weakness that led to the DEN failing to deliver as hoped for.

So, while an ERG leader must be professional in their conduct in relation to the organisation, they must also require that the ERG itself be a professional body in representing the interests of its members. The ERG must be outcome oriented. 


A leader’s ego, lack of experience, and want of an effective strategic vision can risk the corrosion of the vital foundation of teamwork. If they do not have the time and capacity to give their role the attention it demands, they will achieve little. If neither the leader nor the ERG is professional, it will lose the trust and support of its membership.

These are the essential cautions, and I’d rather discourage than encourage aspiration to ERG leadership if they are not fully appreciated.

But on the plus side, there is an essential impatience for change, which energizes members and keeps them engaged. For this change to become real it must infect the rest of the organisation – and this can happen only through teamwork – a shared vision and a shared goal. And this takes effective leadership.

This is what makes an ERG a meaningful and useful creation. 

ERGs are potentially powerful instruments for positive change. But they are also anomalous. They are invited to be disruptive on the one hand and are resisted on the other. They operate slightly out of phase with the organisation’s normal streams of influence. It means their task is difficult, complex, and delicate.

Being an effective ERG leader is, therefore, a deeply challenging experience. The benefits to members are potentially great. But the risk of being ineffectual is high. Inertia is a natural state in organisations. They are naturally change resistant. This means that the impatience that energises ERG membership has a natural inclination to decay into inertia.

Maintaining and spreading that essential impatience for positive change is the most important thing an ERG leader can do. It is immensely difficult but profoundly rewarding.

The Science of Inclusion


When I became DCJ DEN Chair in November 2016 I made a lot of guesses based on years of random reading, plus experience. They turned out to be good guesses in the main.

In 2018, at the Australian Network on Disability’s Annual National Conference, I encountered Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace. Kate introduced me to the idea of Networkology – a data-driven experience-based approach to supporting staff with disability. It was my first hint that there was a science behind the passion for Inclusion.

In June 2021 I quit DCJ, and for the next 12 months I threw myself into the luxury of researching disability inclusion and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) more intensely. I simply did not have the time to commit this amount of effort previously.

What has become abundantly clear is that if you want to generate enduring positive change for staff with disability you must adopt a scientific approach. This is no field for amateurs operating on good intent if the goal is enduring deep positive change. That is just self-indulgence.

In past essays I have explored the impediments to positive change. In this essay I want to explore opportunities for overcoming those impediments.

The scientific approach versus the good intent approach

Good intent is great, as a beginning. Being part of a cause is a good thing. But while gifted amateurs may score some successes, in the longer term the effort expended will not equal the positive outcomes attained.

It is a well attested fact that efforts at inclusion can deliver no discernible advance even 20 years later. See Iris Bohnet’s What Works. Dr David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI) observed that despite the millions of dollars expended on anti-bias training in recent years, the ‘bias problem’ has not gone away. Good intent not backed by science rarely delivers intended results.

The NLI spent around 3 years researching bias and came up with an approach that did not work. It was scrapped and after more research an effective methodology was developed. Even with good science finding solutions is not always assured at first.

The essence of a scientific approach is disciplined inquiry and experimentation followed by rigorous assessment and evaluation – as a virtuous cycle. This is important because organisations are complex things and what makes them tick is not obvious. This is where the amateur approach becomes problematic.

One of the problems of bias is that we think we know more than we really do; and we think we are smarter than we really are. There is a natural tendency to favour folklore and supposition over objective facts – and to even reject those objective facts when they contradict folklore and supposition. This applies even to those whose approach is, in their estimation, scientific. We are all vulnerable to this most natural of all human biases. The scientific approach, when done well, is humbling precisely because it shatters illusions and conceits.

However, if taking a scientific approach is not a habituated thing, it can seem daunting and even overwhelming. But if the difference is between ineffectual action and non-enduring outcomes and effective lasting change the choice should be clear.

What science?

For me research into psychology and the human brain are the most compelling, but just getting data on what is going on now is a great start.

Back in 2014 Kate Nash published Secrets & Big News. This was the first extensive research-based document on employees with disability I had come across. As I noted before, Kate introduced me to the idea of Networkology – the science of building a staff network. 

Another powerfully useful book is  Cherron Inko-Tariah Mbe’s The Incredible Power of Staff Networks . These two books are a must read as a foundation for setting up and running a Disability Employee Resource Group or Disability Employee Network.

In New South Wales we have the advantage of the annual People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) for public sector employees conducted by the Public Service Commission. It is followed up with an annual State of the NSW Public Sector. Both are a rich source of data, especially if tracked year by year. 

In terms of the publicly known data some digging is rewarding but that seems rarely undertaken. This is a pity because there are useful insights to be gained. Of course, agencies will put the most positive spin on their data, but it isn’t hard to get a more balanced picture.

There is a huge amount of invaluable research on aspects of inclusion. I mentioned Bohnet above. I’ll add just a few more:

  • Amy C. Edmondson – The Fearless Organisation
  • D. Kahneman, O. Sibony, C.R. Sunstein – Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow
  • Jessica Nordell – The End of Bias

When it comes to brain research, I am particular inspired by the Neuroleadership Institutewhich is a research-driven company. I have read more widely on brain research, but not in areas specific to the theme of this essay. Lisa Miller’s The Awakened Brain was particularly interesting.

There is a lot of useful material on psychology more generally. I like Jonathan Haidt’s work, as well as the extensive literature on Emotional Intelligence.

The thing about psychology

Good psychological research extends in management, organisation culture and behaviour – in fact anything to do with how organisations and the people in them work. The research informs change management, learning and development, and anything else you think of.

These days you can’t really run a complex organisation well without relying on the latest research. This means a lot of catching up is necessary because people in key roles are busy as it is, without the need to constantly update their knowledge and skills. There is always a lag between current research findings and practice. This can be a good thing, of course, because that research isn’t always done well, or its interpretation can miss the mark. Keeping up also requires constant critical evaluation. 

However, this more starkly demonstrates that an amateur effort at driving change in favour of staff with disability is unlikely to generate enduring or substantial success if it’s not equally diligent.

The thing about brain research

I started reading in brain research in the late 1990s with a fair degree of scepticism. I have had to significantly adjust my attitudes over the years. So much of our behaviour is hardwired into our biology and beyond the reach of glib efforts to coax or admonish us into change. 

As our social, cultural, and work environments have evolved, those hardwired behaviours have resisted well-intentioned efforts to be modified and made as adaptive as desired. This has led to people being blamed for being resistant and is why anti-bias and anti-discrimination training fails and often delivers adverse outcomes. 

This explains my affection for NLI. It understands that efforts at driving behavioural change in favour of inclusion must be grounded in brain research and not moral intent. Yes, the moral intent may be a guiding force, but it cannot be the instrument of change.


I joined the DEN in July 2010 because I wanted to see change. I had returned to work after an 18-month absence with acquired disabilities. My return to work was horrible, but not because anybody was being intentionally cruel to me. My colleagues were fantastic. My managers were well-meaning but inept. I was a novel problem to them (as I was to myself) and they had no prior experience or knowledge to guide them. A workplace adjustment policy was the number 1 priority for me.

When I became DEN Chair in November 2016 the membership was depleted and dispirited. It had no notion of being an effective lobby and the HR team that supported us was well-intentioned, but captive to the larger organisational imperative to change things slowly. There was good intent all around – but progress was painfully slow.

Things changed in 2018 when Kate Nash introduced me to a scientific approach – rational, methodical, strategic, and effective. There’s nothing mysterious about this. It is the way to succeed at most things these days. 

There’s no reason why a DEN or an ERG should see itself exempt. Yes, a body of volunteers does not have the time resources of paid staff. That may make things harder. The issue of time and support is real – if the ERG/DEN is to have a meaningful impact. 

Organisations should be working with DENs/ERGs in collaboration to bring about desired change in a rational and strategic way. They are allies with a common objective. But only one has the resources and the means to promote and support the Science of Inclusion.

A review of NSW Premier’s Disability Review


This report was commissioned by the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) earlier this year and was produced by Ernst and Young (EY). It is dated 8 July 2022.

The Premier’s Priority on Disability concerns employment of people with disability in the NSW public sector. The target rate by 2025 is 5.6%. The 2018 baseline rate was 2.5%. The figure was still at that level in 2021. The figure for 2022 is not yet available.

I read the EY review with mounting disappointment. It offered little more than a cold high-level analysis of a complex matter. It offered no useful insights in why there had been no progress. The recommendations are of little value because they perpetuate the problems with inclusion goals that are global – high level injunctions without practice guidance, and no clear guidance on accountability.

Here I want to reflect on those recommendations, and what could have been proposed.

The recommendations

  1. Implement a consistent definition of disability 
  2. Implement a sector-wide workplace adjustment passport
  3. Provide disability communications guidance 
  4. Improve recruitment guidance and practices 
  5. Implement sector-wide training to improve the capabilities of leaders and managers 
  6. Implement mechanisms to share best practice and maintain momentum across the sector 
  7. Incorporate accessibility into procurement and publishing processes 
  8. Co-design bespoke implementation planning for Health, Education and Stronger Communities Clusters to result in the largest impact 

They are not silly or pointless recommendations. But when one asks for a review on what hasn’t been happening, just coming up with a list of things one should do is hardly helpful. There is no apparent thought given to why there had been no progress on the Premier’s priority, or what had impeded progress.

To be fair, there are a few good observations, like the following ‘insights’ offered by staff interviewed, for example:

  • The workforce appears highly engaged and passionate about outcomes for people with disability, however a greater investment of time and resourcing could help them to be more effective. 
  • Embedding holistic change around diversity and inclusivity into organisational culture is variable and has been, at times, slow.

There was a corresponding set of findings against each ‘insight’. Here are 2:

  • Achieving transformation across the entire public sector will require cultural change that embeds inclusiveness into every level of all organisations across the sector, with visible leadership from senior executives through to recruitment managers. 
  • Although numerous examples of good practice exist across the sector, the system as a whole needs to develop stronger points of connection between organisations and clusters to identify, share, and adapt these examples to Cluster-specific contexts. 

There are, I think some pertinent questions to be answered:

  1. How should agencies provide more time and resources to make the work of DENs more effective?
  2. How do agencies act effectively to embed diversity and inclusion values and practices in their workforce cultures? 
  3. How do agencies ensure that leadership is visibly and demonstrably committed to disability inclusion?

In fact, one ‘finding’ strikes me as the most pertinent and potent and which could have been interpreted and crafted as the #1 recommendation. It is:

  • Achieving transformation across the entire public sector will require cultural change that embeds inclusiveness into every level of all organisations across the sector, with visible leadership from senior executives through to recruitment managers. 

And yet the best the report can come up with is Recommendation 5 – Implement sector-wide training to improve the capabilities of leaders and managers. I don’t flat out disagree with the recommendation, but its chance of success is low. This is because of several major concerns:

  1. It would take years to develop and implement at very considerable cost.
  2. Such training without cultural change being first embedded will not deliver the best value for money.
  3. Training must be voluntary and valued. To make that happen a lot of preparatory influencing must happen first.

The overall problem I have with the recommendations as a group is that they don’t form into an actionable strategy. For example, I agree a uniform definition of disability would be a good thing – but its not the #1 issue here. I would want to see a set of recommendations that identify the most pressing concerns that can be acted upon. This suggests to me that there are two sets of actions:

  • Procedural/administrative
  • Cultural/practice/experience

These must be considered separate and run concurrently, with clear guidance on intersection points.

The time problem

A report like this could have been written 3 years ago. In fact, it should have been. What it shows now is what it would have shown then. There would be a chance of hitting the target number by the target date if the sector had the report and acted upon it with intent and commitment. Even the recommendations, as they stand, and assuming they are accepted across the sector, can’t be implemented in a shorter timeframe.

For a variety of reasons, I have discussed at length in other essays, changing the workplace experience for people with disability is a complex affair. Time is only one of the resources needed. The others are commitment and attention. But neither are worth anything without time. 

The reality problem

Probably the reason there has been no sector-wide progress on the Premier’s priority on employing people with disability is that is hard. It takes time. Its takes resources. It takes caring. It takes leadership.

Globally it is recognised that inclusion – disability or otherwise – is dependent on effective, committed, and accountable leadership. It must be a priority. Resources must be provided. Organisational leadership must be held accountable.

This is an inescapable reality. It can lead people who do care to talk the talk, but cannot walk the walk because they are not able to, even though they want to – and cannot confess they can’t. It’s not a good place to be in, because it puts them in company with those unwilling to walk the walk. And we often can’t tell the difference.


I am disappointed that the NSW Premier’s Disability Review isn’t likely to be a useful tool for driving worthwhile action. I am, however, grateful that it exists as an official overview of the challenges and opportunities – though they must be reshuffled to reflect the practical priorities.

I sensed in the report a tension between administrators and practitioners. Seeing the target as numbers to be attained makes sense only if the human reality that underpins those numbers is genuinely inclusive and respectful. That tension is present in all aspects of public service. It is a natural dynamic that strives to balance compassion and means in ways that we can live with. 

This review struck me as giving a nod to the compassion side but coming down squarely on the means side. I suppose, given that it is a review of a failure to hit a target number, that risk was always there.

But let’s be very clear here. The failure to make any progress on the target number has not been a failing of compassion. Yes, the compassion side has been not very adept at times. But it has been having a go and succeeding at times. 

The means side has been the issue – a lack of resources and attention, and an unwillingness to make hitting a target an accountable matter. I am not suggesting that the means side is mean – just maybe it didn’t understand the amount of work needed to make the changes. If it had, it may have ensured that a target number about people didn’t forget the human character of that number.

I think, finally, while I appreciate the intent of the Premier’s Priority for growing the proportion of people with disability in the NSW public sector, it was poorly conceived as an idea. There was no clear strategic approach from the outset, and now we are all paying for that. The solution is hinted at in the EY review in Recommendation 6 – Implement mechanisms to share best practice and maintain momentum across the sector. But how? Would such an action be resourced properly, and practitioner led? Would there be accountability?

The frustrating thing about the Premier’s Priority from the outset has been a passive and general approach – as exemplified by the Age of Inclusion campaign from the PSC. A lot of resources were consumed developing a flawed product nobody seems to use. 

You can’t make this kind of change voluntary and optional. It must be well-led, adequately resourced, accountable, and part of core business.