The UK civil service should learn from international governments' diversity schemes

Written by Joshua Chambers on 9 June 2016 in Opinion

Governments around the world have successfully used innovative schemes to build diversity - and technology is proving to be the place to make quick wins, says Joshua Chambers.

It was inevitable that the Rebel Alliance would defeat the Empire in Star Wars. Why? The Empire’s leadership was almost solely made up of white male elites with the same accent and outlook.

The rebels, meanwhile, are a band of diverse freedom fighters with all views welcome. They are a tapestry of differing backgrounds and experiences.

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Governments around the world are just starting to learn the lessons from this encounter. They are overhauling the way they include people in government, opening up their processes and recruiting in new ways.

Administrations that face the biggest challenges need to engage their citizens the most. Take South Australia, a state with unemployment at a 15-year high and a mass exodus of young people. A string of crowdsourcing initiatives has been launched to make citizens feel valued. The FundMyCommunity scheme lets people suggest and vote on projects for the needy, with AU$1m (£500,000) set aside for them. The Fund My Idea programme allows community groups to compete for up to AU$50,000 (£25,000) for local projects such as “maker space” for people to experiment with new tech.

There’s also the Zero Carbon Challenge – an inspirational push to make Adelaide, the state capital, completely carbon neutral. Small businesses can compete to win AU$250,000 (£125,000), trialling their ideas in waste management, energy, transport and reducing the heat of the city centre.

Governments can use these techniques to improve their operations. For example, Beth Noveck’s new book, Smart Citizens, Smarter State, notes how São Paolo called on citizens to help train the local civil service. Huge numbers applied, and 200 “citizen teachers” were selected to teach public servants data skills and how to use new technology.

Some countries have even set up regular initiatives like this. For example, Singapore has a Smart Nation Fellowship, which lets tech high flyers leave California’s Silicon Valley to join government for just three to six months. The fellows guide ongoing projects, propose new ideas, and mentor civil servants.

“You don’t need people to come in and work for you for 25 years,” the Singapore government’s chief information officer told me.

The Indonesian capital of Jakarta, meanwhile, uses internships to lure talented young coders, showing them life in the centre of power and giving them cash to stick around. “I want people who are smarter, more creative and have more new ideas than me,” the city’s governor says. Jakarta desperately needs digital services to help cut corruption and make life easier for citizens.

These kinds of schemes are a particularly good way to include new voices in government. In São Paolo, for example, 42% of the “citizen teachers” are women and 40% are from minority backgrounds.

Government technology is proving an excellent area to make quick gains on diversity. GovInsider, the title I edit, ran a string of interviews with “Women in Gov Tech” last year. It was notable how many women hold great seniority in this field in countries where I assumed they would be held back.

In Malaysia, both the top tech officials are women. So are many of the tech-savvy mayors and officials in Indonesia. This challenged my perceptions of women’s lives in these Islamic countries, especially given that Malaysia also has official targets to ensure over 50% of policymakers are women.

But as Malaysia’s tech agency chief said, it also shows how technology is a great leveller. Women have been able to leapfrog existing power structures, quickly showing their worth without “invisible barriers”. It’s well-known that male-heavy selection panels and management teams subconsciously hold them back.

To its credit, the UK’s Government Digital Service has made the commitment to only attend events with equal female representation. Such statements matter.

A drive for inclusive government could achieve what the open government movement has failed to – and reduce what Noveck calls the “pandemic of distrust”. The US pledged openness while hoovering up masses of personal data. Russia joined the Open Government Partnership and then covertly invaded Ukraine. Countries across the world built data portals that promised much and delivered surprisingly little.

But the open government movement can be reinvented with a more precise mission. Government must be of the people, as well as for it. A rebel alliance for more inclusive government could be a force to be reckoned with.

About the author

Joshua Chambers is founder of Asia Pacific public sector innovation monitor GovInsider. His article originally appeared on PublicTechnology's sister site, Civil Service World.

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