Socio-economic background questions to boost diversity

By David Donaldson

August 19, 2016

We know a fair bit about who our senior public servants are. They’re mostly white, and more likely to be male (though that’s changing).

Less often considered is the socio-economic background of Australia’s government executives. While the Australian Public Service definition of “diversity” mentions socio-economic background, there doesn’t seem to be much data collected about it.

Studies suggest Australia has higher social mobility and lower inequality than the United Kingdom and United States. Inequality is, however, continuing to grow, which will likely lead to lower social mobility — so should we be asking bureaucrats where they went to school and if they were ever in state care in an effort to ensure the public service is reflective of society at large?

No doubt socio-economic background is not quite as simple to measure as gender or Indigenous identification, but it seems the United Kingdom has figured out a way to wrangle with this sometimes sensitive question.

As part of a broader strategy to improve social mobility, the British government recently announced a one-month pilot to test the socio-economic backgrounds of 4000 of its most senior staff. In a bid to better understand who is being recruited to the civil service, a voluntary and anonymous survey is being sent out with 12 questions:

  • whether the individual spent time in care;
  • whether the individual ever had refugee or asylum status;
  • whether the individual was a carer as a child;
  • the type of secondary school the individual attended;
  • the name of the school the individual attended;
  • whether their parent, guardian or carer had completed a degree;
  • the highest qualification of their parent, guardian or carer;
  • the home postcode of the individual at age 14;
  • whether the individual was eligible for free school meals;
  • the occupation of their parent, guardian or carer;
  • the tenure of the accommodation they lived in as a child;
  • a self-assessment of their socio-economic background status.

The government says the data “will not form the basis of any individual recruitment decision” and that “appointment is and should always be on merit.” Instead it will be used as an analytic tool to gain insights into the workforce.

New Minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer says he is focused on improving social mobility. “I am committed to ensuring that anyone with the right talents and aptitude can serve in the civil service, no matter what their background,” he states.

“Understanding social background through a set of measures, commonly used by employers, will enable us to assess whether we are attracting the widest possible talent and to make decisions which are based on sound evidence.”

In March, the UK government’s Talent Action Plan 2016 set out a commitment on working with employers and other interested sectors to develop, for the first time, a set of common measures to enable employers to understand the socio-economic backgrounds of their workforces and applicant pools. Since September, name and school blind applications have been rolled out for 70% of the civil service by default and will soon be standard across the board.

More recently Victoria announced it would trial name-blind applications for a range of public and private sector organisations in a bid to tackle unconscious bias in recruiting.

A range of businesses that helped the UK government to develop the twelve questions will also pilot the same measures in their own workforce. The 12 questions were whittled down from 26 potential measures put out for public comment over a period of one month.

Once the findings for the pilot have been considered and further discussions have taken place with stakeholders, a basket of three to five final questions will be announced by the end of 2016. Guidance will also be announced on how they can be used by employers.

The decision was taken to make the questions voluntary after concerns were raised during consultations that their use in recruitment may lead to increased discrimination, reports Civil Service World.

Top image: Toffs and Toughs, 1937, by Jimmy Sime/Getty.

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