Gaining Public Trust

ARTICLE | Jun 8, 2016

Why the Local Government Workforce Needs to Be Diverse and Inclusive

As a manager in a meeting with local government staff, you might say, “We are a select group of similar people, who are working for the wider benefit of all the people who live in this community.” This statement doesn’t sound right though, does it?

How can a small group of people genuinely serve the wider public? And if its members are all alike, how can they secure the trust and confidence of everyone?

Imagine this thought experiment: What if staff members for cities and counties were selected at random—as in a jury? What basis would we choose for selecting them? Why not their dates of birth?

If we wanted to select 3 percent of the population, we could just choose a day—say the 20th of each month. In this make-believe world, only those born on the 20th of each month could be eligible to work for a city or county.

Ironically, this random approach to selecting staff could produce a more diverse and inclusive workforce than is currently the case in many local government organizations anywhere in the world; however, it would be completely absurd.

It may be okay to use random selection for juries, for these make temporary demands upon residents, but we cannot use this random selection process to structure lifelong careers in public service. So what should we do, and how should we do it?

Diversity Is Key

First, we must recognize that diversity in a workforce is good, in and of itself. But it’s also a good that generates even greater benefits. A talented bunch of similar types can produce considerable public benefits. The world is full of inventions, projects, and services that were designed by like-minded people who all shared some key characteristics.

In the world of the early 21st century, it is more common for innovative breakthroughs to occur when combining ideas from people who have differences. In the world of public service, the diversity of people’s personal and social characteristics is as vital as the diversity of their ideas.

This is a key feature for us in London. In a dynamic and growing city of some 9 million, what is evident is the “hyper diversity” and incredibly varied heritage of Londoners. Throughout the world, only New York City has a comparable level of population diversity to London.

In my borough of Lewisham, its population of 300,000 is a complex weave of people from London and from across the United Kingdom, as well as people who have come to London from around the globe—people with differences in their heritage, faith, ethnicity, culture, and economic circumstances.

All councils need to make decisions locally to invest in public infrastructure, to design public services, and to decide between competing claims for public benefits. In so doing, they need to have the trust and confidence of the public they serve.

Is the investment going into places where it is most needed? Are services designed for the best impact locally? And when there are competing claims locally, how are decisions made fairly?

In all of these respects, council officials need to act in trustworthy ways. It’s simply not an option to command the public to have trust and confidence in us as managers and leaders—we need to act in ways that generate that trust.

The one chart (see Figure 1) that gives me the most pride in the 20 years I have been employed at my authority is the one about public trust in the council’s actions. Customer satisfaction charts, educational attainment charts, business improvement charts, and crime reduction charts each tell a positive story.

Charting the trustworthiness of your organization, however, is perhaps the most important metric for the 21st century. Basically, in a 2015 randomized survey, 60 percent of Lewisham’s residents responded that they trust the council “to make the best decisions for the borough as a whole, even if I personally disagree with a decision.”















The Issue of Trust

For residents to posit trust in a public professional or in a council, they must believe in the competence and reliability of the person or council concerned. This belief usually stems from direct experience of the quality and reliability of the person or council. It can also arise from indirect reports from friends, family, and neighbors or from publicly available media coverage.

The degree of trust that residents place in public action by councils will also rely upon the degree of personal contact they have with those people who make the decisions—whether elected or appointed—and who are involved in delivering public services. Trust in councils can corrode through the small but repeated failures of external contract staff, as much as through big policy failures of elected decisionmakers.

Critically, it is difficult to trust others if you know nothing about them as individuals. Hence a degree of intimacy and personal connection is essential for generating trust. It is not enough to be competent and reliable. That is why the sources of trust are found not just in how you perform your role, but they are also embodied in who you are.

“How you work” is tied up with the council’s capabilities: professional credibility of staff, organizational reliability, and consistency of project and service delivery. “Who you are” is a question that is tied to your values. It is about character, integrity, and personality.

The crucial point is that organizations composed of socially diverse people are more likely to be creatively innovative and offer points of personal connection to a wider public. They are more likely to deliver valued public services.

In Lewisham, most residents work in the private sector elsewhere in London. In the main part of the city, they work in financial services, the scientific and knowledge economy, the service sector, and creative industries. Some 16,000 people work for public sector employers based in Lewisham. Of these, only one in eight works for the council. The remainder work in schools, health care services, the police force, and the local university.

If we were to consider disparities between the public served and those serving the public, it is notable that whereas 45 percent of all local residents are of black and minority ethnic heritage, the comparable rate among the Lewisham Council staff group is 39 percent. The rate in school systems, however, is lower at 32 percent, and the rates among university and police force are below 20 percent.

These reflect broad labor market and narrower professional biases as much as they reflect institutional practices. The barriers and obstacles to achieving workforce diversity and inclusion will, of course, vary from organization to organization and from place to place.

Thus, while the councils need to ensure that the pattern and profile of the local government workforce is broadly reflective of the community, they also need to act with other partners to ensure that public services generally are held in trust and confidence by members of the public.

Failure in any one public agency can serve to undermine trust and confidence more widely across the community. And there is little point in promoting workforce diversity and inclusion in one local organization—the council, for example—if it is not attended to with the same rigor in the local police force or school system.

A Systems Leadership Approach

There was a time at the end of the last century when local government in the United Kingdom retreated into an elaborate form of reputation management and stakeholder analysis. These approaches had their merits and forced local governments to move away from an internalized focus on resource management, service strategy, and performance measures.

Instead, they made us think about what other people think about us. At one level, this created a new form of institutional egoism. We become fixated on what people thought about us as an organization. We should have been focused outside of ourselves on whether our local economies were thriving and whether our local communities were becoming healthier. This could happen with diversity.

We should not narrow our focus on just our own diversity. The non-hiring of ethnic community members by a large private company locally, for example, is as injurious to racial justice as is the relative disparity in hiring (and promotion) rates within a council’s own staff.

That’s why we need to have a systems leadership approach to diversity and inclusion. Our workforce, of course, needs to be diverse. That way, the possibilities for internal organizational creativity is enhanced, and also the pluralism in our community meets itself in our staff. This leads the way to greater trust in council decisions and actions.

Diversity and inclusion are not simply agenda items for organizational leaders. They are social goals for communities and for all of the public agencies and private companies woven into the fabric of our communities.

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