It's a long way to the top

Responding to a recent article about a lack of diversity in senior local government, council chief executive Bala Mahendran outlines why he believes the number of black and minority ethnic candidates has stagnated

I read with interest Marc Wadsworth's recent article about a lack of managerial diversity in local government; an issue of particular significance to me as one of the "few" Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) chief executives.

Unfortunately, it has been known for some time there is a significant gulf in BME talent being utilised in the sector, and the million dollar question remains – what are we going to do about it?

I have been chief executive at Basildon Council for some six years now. Local government has given me a full and challenging career for nearly 30 years, and with the building of a £38m sporting village Somehow, the message about the dynamic nature of a career in local government is not translating in all circles. There is much work to be done to move forward.

To say that I am disappointed that there are less BME local authority chief executives now than there was 25 years ago is quite an understatement.

Women have made great strides in redressing the management diversity imbalance (even if there is still a long way to go). Whereas, over the same period, numbers of BME candidates reaching senior positions have not just stagnated, but are actually regressing in relative terms.

I do not want to pull on the heart strings of some sort of moral need for reform, even if I feel that there is a clear case to do so. Instead, as a senior figure in local government and as a manager of a large authority, I feel that there is a clearly defined business case to make progress.

How can it be that on a local level, where people have the most rudimentary interaction with government, that decision makers fail to reflect the diverse communities they serve? I would argue that some minority communities feel detached from their unrepresentative local authority and this in turn makes necessary services appear unobtainable or culturally irrelevant.

At the heart of local government is the need to deliver for our communities, and that must include all corners.

With local government facing some of the toughest challenges for a generation, it simply can't continue to function in the same way it always has. As a collective, local government must work to refresh the skills to meet the challenges ahead. It needs to be more flexible and dynamic, moving away from consistently rewarding the status quo set of skills which have been so prevalent in the sector for years.

I believe that a rebalance of BME in senior local government positions could be a key driver for reform in the sector – as we look to move it beyond the 'we've always done it that way' mentality. You have to ask yourself why the private sector, law firms, financial institutions and businesses (such as Coca-Cola) actively seek BME talent, while local and central government find it more challenging.

Many BME communities have a predisposition for the familiar in their career choices. I also think it is fair to say that some people with BME backgrounds lack an awareness of the potential benefits of a career in local government. This may be due to a vacuum of role models in the sector or the failure of the sector to reach out and market in such circles.

But the issue does not rest solely with the sector itself; we are grappling with some significant cultural issues too. Many BME people often note a need to feel secure in their careers, via peer and family pressures.

Local government at times lacks a clearly defined career path which seems to inhibit applications. In medicine an individual can roughly expect a promotion at a certain time, whereas our sector is much more fluid.

Having faced an element of exposure to this myself, it seems minority communities favour medicine, business and law as career options because they come with a certain kudos; young talented people know that these careers will keep their parents happy. These attitudinal issues will be much harder for local government to unpick.

Marketing and branding local government as a lucrative and challenging career can undoubtedly make some strides towards progress on this issue. Then, if local government can attract a gene pool of graduates and junior managers, the sector must offer comprehensive support to ensure that they have the same opportunities to reach their full potential.

Another valid point of action would be to take a frank look at existing recruitment practices, particularly at senior management level, to ensure that we are offering a level playing field for all.

We tend to be more risk averse in local government but with very high level of policy richness in inclusion and Diversity – something which then translates into being delivery poor.

As a young engineer I was told, "if all else fails read the instructions again". It may be a good idea for all the civil service (both local and central) to challenge ourselves on whether we are recruiting people in our own image. Think laterally, and don't always follow the guidance.

The local government sector, which has given me so much, must not be looking back in five years time on a real missed opportunity for reform – particularly in the midst of a significant period of transition.

From a business point of view, I hope we will be saying not "Yes We Can" to establishing a vibrant and representative collective workforce, but "Yes we did". I'm ever the optimist.

Bala Mahendran is chief executive of Basildon council

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