Height Of Opportunity

5 Apr 22

Greater workforce diversity can help government organisations deliver better services. What more can be done to improve career prospects for minority groups?


At its best, the public sector supports the communities it serves to thrive and lead fulfilling lives. But there is a growing realisation that the workforce, especially in positions with the greatest influence over decision-making, should better reflect the makeup of those communities.

There is an undeniable sense that the top of the sector is dominated by people from a particular background. Perhaps they look a certain way, or are from a particular place. That type of person clearly varies depending on which country you are in. They often form the majority demographic, such as in western Europe, for example, where that person is probably white, but white people also traditionally dominate senior positions in South Africa, where the population is 75% black. In other countries, public sector professionals can face barriers because of their nationality, religion or their place within the caste system.

Public finance is the beating heart of the public sector, and many countries are pushing to improve representation among the top rungs of the profession. Aside from the basic issue of fairness – representative diversity is surely evidence, at least partly, that there are equitable opportunities in a society – the practical, organisational benefits are manifold. Diverse organisations benefit from varied perspectives, help their staff feel more comfortable and reduce the risk of unconscious bias seeping into their decision-making.

“The real value from diversity comes from working with someone who approaches a problem from a different angle – who sees things differently, introduces ideas that we wouldn’t think of,” says Jonathan Taylor, managing psychologist at UK diversity and inclusion training provider Pearn Kandola. “If an organisation has not invested in creating an inclusive culture, people who are different to the majority are likely to leave. An important element of this is where people feel psychologically safe – able to take risks or to be themselves without fearing negative consequences. This creates the conditions for people with different backgrounds to express themselves and to share alternative ideas.”

Institutional racism

But historical and societal issues in the form of institutional racism can also get in the way. To give just one example, barriers in schools and universities mean there are generally fewer educational opportunities available for people from ethnic minorities, with a negative effect on career prospects. Micro-level problems, such as bigoted views held by a particular senior figure, can also have a significant negative impact.

“It only takes one or two people to discriminate against you to hurt your career,” says Mark Mack, manager of the US-based Government Finance Officers Association’s Research and Consulting Center and a member of GFOA’s black caucus networking group. “In a lot of cases, officers are hired by elected officials, and when one comes in with less progressive views it puts you in a very insecure position. We find cases where a career is advancing and then that person hits a glass ceiling. The goalposts are very often moved – perhaps the level of qualifications needed for a senior position are suddenly higher than they were before. We hear quite a bit of that.”

The problem, however, is more complex than just a few roadblocks, says Lunda Asmani, a fellow GFOA black caucus group member and chief financial officer at Norwalk Public Schools in Connecticut. There is also a problem with the ‘pipeline’ of ethnic minority staff members. “The challenge when you are a hiring manager is that, if that pipeline does not exist, even well-meaning organisations will face a challenge ensuring representation. The challenge does not start with the hiring process – it ends with it.”

“It only takes one or two people to discriminate against you to hurt your career. In a lot of cases, officers are hired by elected officials, and when one comes in with less progressive views it puts you in a very insecure position” Mark Mack, Government Finance Officers Association

Asmani says many black people in the US do not consider going into public finance, and neither do many immigrants, who often favour engineering or sciences when considering higher education. “When I looked around the room during my graduate studies, there were not many people who looked like me,” he says. “Not because they were excluded, but because it was not a thing that they thought to do.” One solution the GFOA black caucus group has found is going into historically black colleges and universities to make people aware of the public finance career path.

Start early

In South Africa, the black majority is often at a disadvantage. Historically, top positions were taken by white people, and although that is changing, pipeline issues still exist there, too, according to Eshana Manichand, associate director of Africa diversity and inclusion at Deloitte. She says she has found more success engaging with children from an earlier age. “We started working with children early in school,” she says. “Talking to seniors at high schools was not working. Some of the most disadvantaged students did not even understand many of the questions we were asking.”

Manichand says South Africa is still very unequal, nearly 30 years after the end of apartheid. But she does not believe there is a glass ceiling for black members of the profession – because of the laws and policies in place. She lists the Employment Equity Act, the Commission for Employment Equity and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act as important aspects of pro-representation governance in the country, but particularly highlights section nine of the constitution. The text guarantees equality, forbids discrimination and compels the state to pass legislation seeking to prevent discrimination. “When you are a public servant it becomes a mantra – everything you do revolves around it,” says Manichand.

Both she and Asmani believe professional bodies have a major responsibility to push diversity forward. Their roles as trainers, standard-setters and as hubs for developing and discussing best practices put them in a great position to do so, they say. CIPFA director of policy and membership Drew Cullen says that bodies such as the institute must have a “cultural aspect” to their missions – encouraging the right behaviours in the profession by drawing focus towards new developments or by working with employers when selecting candidates for training. “Then, once we have people who are representative of the communities they serve, it is important that we enable them to have a voice and for their different circumstances to be recognised and respected so they can fully participate and contribute to the work of the institute,” Cullen says.

“It is about enabling people to have a voice, collecting and monitoring data effectively, and then acting on that data in a constructive way to ensure that we are at least moving in the right direction,” he adds.

Gathering and using data is crucial to fully understanding how the sector is performing, says Maddy Bishop, research assistant at the UK’s Institute for Government think-tank. “Collecting data allows for proper benchmarking across the public sector, showing differences between departments,” she says. If one department or body has a more diverse workforce, or better representation at the top of the organisation, it could then be possible to work out whether it is something they do actively that is succeeding, or whether it is perhaps the nature of its work.”


Collecting and publishing this data is important for scrutiny and transparency, both of which are important for building trust with the public, says Bishop. “But, most of all, data is important as a jumping-off point for action,” she adds.

In New Zealand, for example, the results of the 2021 Te Taunaki Public Service Census revealed that Māori representation in the public sector as a whole was 16.4%, with Asian people making up 12.5% and Pacific people 10.2% of the workforce (employees with a mixed heritage are counted twice) – all higher figures than the year before. But it was a different picture for senior leadership, with 13.5% Māori, 4.3% Pacific and 2.9% Asian representation.

These figures do, however, indicate progress – the number of Pacific people in senior roles has more than doubled in the past five years, and Māori representation at the very top level (including chief executives and secretaries) has done the same. After the survey’s results were published, the country’s top public servant Peter Hughes said he was working with Māori advisers to improve engagement in order to boost the public services offered to Māori people, meeting the government’s obligations under the Public Service Act 2020.

Other governments, such as those in the Gulf States, have pursued strict staff quotas to meet their aims of representation. Historically, many administrative jobs were carried out by westerners, but, in recent decades, as local institutions have grown in strength, the authorities have wanted to increase the number of domestic nationals in work, including the public sector. This process – labelled differently in various countries (Saudisation, Omanisation or Emiratisation, for example) – has achieved its desired effect, but many foreign nationals in these countries now feel that they are being passed over for opportunities.

“Bodies definitely need to make deliberate efforts to recruit, promote and retain ethnic minority staff. But the challenge with quotas is that they put you in a corner and take the focus away from people’s qualifications” Mark Mack, Government Finance Officers Association

Quota systems

India and Pakistan have similar quota systems, aimed at positively discriminating in favour of historically disadvantaged castes and religious groups. Introduced by the British Raj in 1932, when “the depressed classes” were assigned seats in elections, quotas were expanded to include mandated minimum levels of lower caste representation in the public sector during the 1990s. Neighbouring Pakistan had established a similar system two decades earlier.

Mack believes that quotas are a useful way to encourage representation. “Even after you have that discussion about the pipeline, you find it is insufficient to explain the problem,” he says.

The idea, often known in the US as ‘affirmative action’, fell out of fashion there after being popular in the 1980s and 1990s, following accusations of ‘tokenism’. “But I have not seen anything else work,” says Mack. “For whatever reason, black people often do not end up in higher positions, and we should hold people accountable for that.”

Asmani disagrees, although he understands the intention of quotas. “Bodies definitely need to make deliberate efforts to recruit, promote and retain ethnic minority staff,” he says. “But the challenge with quotas is that they put you in a corner and take the focus away from people’s qualifications.”

What is clear is that representation looks different wherever you go. But perhaps, when looking for solutions, all countries have things in common. People need to be encouraged into the sector to build and feed an employee ‘pipeline’, and they need to be helped to fulfil their potential. Perhaps existing leaders should be held to account for their failures to do so.

Improving data collection on minority representation would be a good start, to allow the sector to take stock and share best practices. Diversity and inclusion will not guarantee perfect service delivery, but improving representation is a necessary step as the sector looks to improve how it works for the communities it serves.

Image credit | Getty

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