Equal opportunities, but at what cost?

With a new anti-discrimination law now in place, it's up to local authorities and public bodies to make sure both staff and users are treated as equals, the trouble is how to monitor ethnic groups
Brick Lane
A diverse society maybe flagged up in some areas, but how do those responsible for public services monitor its users?

With the passing of new equalities legislation in April, most public sector bodies must have uttered a figurative sigh. Not because the Equality Act 2010 to prevent discrimination and encourage equal opportunities is unimportant – quite the opposite – but because of the logistics involved.

The bulk of the new legislation will come into force this autumn, including the requirement that every function, action, policy and spending decision within the public sector be subject to a three-yearly review of its positive and negative effect on staff and service users in terms of equality "strands" including ethnicity, religion or gender.

One tool designed to help public bodies monitor diversity is the aptly named Diversity Monitor software from Experian. It compares the names of staff, clients or patients with a database of millions of names across 200 language groups to infer ethnicities.

"The more public bodies can understand about the people using their services, the better able they are to serve them," says Experian's Simon Hodgson. "This is a very powerful tool for analysing service users and employees."

The software will enable the NHS or local councils to identify which groups are not making best use of services, says Hodgson, and to adapt their information or policies accordingly. Employers will also be able to assess whether the mix of ethnicities within their organisations reflects the wider communities they serve, and whether that mix changes going up through the management grades. Experian envisages the tool being applied to the payroll database on a quarterly basis to establish how patterns are changing.

More textured data

Glasgow City Council is already using the software, which, according to Dawn Corbett, head of corporate policy and social reform, has "demonstrated that the information we were able to collect through routine monitoring was limited" and "provided more textured data that enabled us to problem solve and plan better".

While Experian is keen to stress that this is a tool to profile groups rather than individuals, some managers are concerned about issues of consent, however, as well as the accuracy of equality mapping in this way.

"I think it's dangerous to make assumptions about people's ethnicity given that names can be changed through marriage or by deed poll," says Andrea Derbyshire, equality and diversity manager for the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust. "I would certainly have reservations about making these assumptions if our patients or workforce had been unwilling to disclose this information to us through our usual channels in the first place."

The trust currently gathers equality data through its recruitment process, and 18 months ago conducted a one-off equalities data cleanse of all staff, with a 60% response rate. A "single equality approach" to patients now covers all equality strands, pre-empting new legal requirements.

Ann Webster, equality and diversity lead at Derby City Council, says regular equality and diversity forums, as well as standard equality monitoring forms, encourage very good response rates. Unacquainted with the software, she said she would be "very concerned" about inferring the ethnicity of service users through their names – adding that she herself is half Ukrainian.

Peter Latchford, chief executive of equalities consultants Black Radley and vice chair of the Community Development Foundation, says that the objective to improve the numbers of people from ethnic minority groups at senior management level is laudable, but warns against "analysis from the outside".

"It can be dangerous to categorise people using external, quasi-objective means, however – if they choose not to tell us how they see themselves then what right do we have to impose a category upon them?

"Nevertheless it's always useful for public organisations to have a sense of the ethnicity and diversity of their catchment areas in order to frame their services, so while I suspect there may be some problems doing it according to names, if the primary objective is to ensure we have a balanced, representative and diverse mix of people at all levels of an organisation then I think this is a positive move."

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