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In early July I had the pleasure of speaking at Civil Service Live in London’s ExCeL. My topic – whether the technology sector was failing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I). As part of the session, I hosted a panel with 3 fantastic speakers, Miranda Pottinger, Funmi Surl and Aaron Prior bringing together views of Government Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT), private sector consultancy and one of the world’s most successful technology companies.

The session was framed around research that Hitachi Solutions undertook last year, interviewing over 100 Civil Servants to surface their views and attitudes towards ED&I in DDaT teams. You can download the full research here or see a quick overview via our infographic here.

I asked Aaron, writer of the Equality Acts and lecturer on Accessibility/Neuro Diversity, to give us the background on the history of Equality in the UK:

Looking Back…

When asked about my profound interest in accessibility, I like to tell people that I was there at the very start – in a time when accessibility wasn’t even a term and inclusive working meant that the office had a wheelchair ramp.

It was the late 1990’s and I was working for a central government department at the time and was a part of its fledgling IT support team. We had a single blind user within the department, who had a number of hardware adaptations to his computer (proto- screen readers and braille keyboard) that frequently failed to cooperate each morning at bootup.

So began a regular morning routine of troubleshooting.

Because of my ‘interest in supporting disabled users’ (as my boss phrased it), I was given the opportunity to join the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) as a ‘Technology Consultant’- the DRC were looking into how rights for disabled people could be improved through a new piece of legislation (what would become the Equality Act 2006). Our leader, the great Sir Bert Massie, wanted to seize the opportunity to move from a world that saw disability as a separate ‘hurdle’ and instead look at it as basic human equality.

Man on running wheel
Computer screen
person writing down on her notebook with laptop in front

Technology can liberate…. It can free the creative mind from the limitations of the body…. But without care, it can also trap and isolate

Sir Bert Massie

From Disability to Equality…

The Equality Act (2006 & 2010) was a step forward- cementing concepts like ‘Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust’ and the subsequent ‘Public Sector Equality Duty’ made considering the equality impact on disability of any internal or external change mandatory. With the arrival of the ‘Public Sector Accessibility Regulations 2018’, we finally had legislation that called for audits and evidence of public sector compliance – something that the Equality Acts lacked. This in turn resulted in Accessibility & WCAG2.1 compliance to form a part of Government Procurement Frameworks, further guiding decision makers towards considering accessibility at the start of any business change.

The Covid-19 Wrecking Ball…

Then along came a little global pandemic…

Without a doubt, Covid-19 has had an unparalleled impact on tech adoption: I hope you’ve all seen the Covid wrecking ball meme, if not, give it a quick search. It’s forced both public and private sector organisations to lay down their long-held fears around security and governance and jump headfirst into the cloud era. On the one hand, I applaud this; it must be great news for all? I worry that in the rush towards this online collaborative nirvana, those processes and considerations we spent years fighting to have in the Equality Acts could easily be forgotten and brushed aside, with a promise to ‘review it all when the situation calms down.’ We mustn’t step backwards! We mustn’t lose all we have gained over 20 years.

The New Normal…

My plea to you all is this: when thinking about ‘The New Normal’ or ‘The Future of the Workplace’ make sure inclusion is right up there at the start, for both your staff and your customers. Even if you work in the private sector, try using the ‘Equality Impact Assessment’ framework (used by the public sector) to map out how your new way of working will impact your staff and customers. Let’s use this situation as a springboard to go even further.

Now back to our session at Civil Service Live…

Our research highlighted the journey that both the public and technology sectors have been on in support of ED&I. The general acceptance that diverse and inclusive teams create better, more salient outcomes and that digital products and services should be designed by team’s representative of their users. This is true whether we are talking about renewing a passport or making a video call. Accessibility is everything. The data backs this up, with 90% of government departments owning an ED&I strategy with 60% published. 60% isn’t great, but this increases every year.

Taking the accepted view that ED&I has a tangible effect on the outcome, it does seem strange that this is rarely factored into the supplier procurement process. Only 11% of participants deemed ED&I to be a significant part of selecting a commercial partner. And more interestingly although Departments may well report on diversity within their team, this does not include suppliers or contractors. In government these can form a bulk of capability, meaning there is a hidden reality.

Gender featured in both the research and the panel discussion. A recent TechNation study found that 91% of technology companies are run by men. It also found that 68% of male lead start-ups received Venture Capital funding versus just 3% of those run by women. In simple terms, a man is around 20 times more likely to get tech start-up funding than a woman. On this basis that 91% doesn’t look like it is changing any time soon.

In many ways, the public sector seems significantly ahead of the private sector, with greater gender representation and increased transparency. But despite some success, only 18% of our research participants knew of initiatives to support women into leadership positions within DDaT teams. It would seem an opportunity is being missed to develop and access the best talent.

The same research showed that the sector has a marginally higher proportion of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people than the labour market: 11.8% for all occupations, and 15.2% for tech. But this is still unrepresentative of the UK as a whole (20%). Unfortunately, we simply don’t have access to the public sector DDaT data to make a comparison here.

Closing thoughts…

Our research and our panel session barely scratched the surface of ED&I, but they did tell us a few things. That there is progress, albeit far too slow and inconsistent. That the public sector’s interventions in its own systems, processes and policies have had a huge impact but the private sector is a long way behind. And that the technology sector is still failing to support and thus get access to the best talent particularly when it comes to gender. In short, the technology sector seems to be falling short of its own potential to grow.

I’d like to thank my incredible panel members Miranda Pottinger and Funmi Surl and of course our resident expert Aaron Prior. I am also hugely grateful to the 200+ Civil Servants that joined us on the day at Civil Service Live, and hope that we have done even a small amount to raise awareness, change perception or spark action.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and questions.

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Edward Pikett

Author Spotlight

Edward Pikett

Ed has dedicated his entire career to designing and delivering public digital services. He is an advocate of simplicity, transparency, and creativity, having spent over a decade in the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and more recently as Chief Digital Officer for the Department for International Trade. He now leads and supports our central government function.