Mind the diversity gap: equality and inclusion work in the NHS

By Shak Rafiq, communications manager for NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG),

Diversity and inclusion matter, there’s plenty of evidence to support this. According to McKinsey (2015) companies that commit themselves to diversity are more successful as they win top talent, improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision making.

Inclusive practices help build a positive impression of businesses especially as consumers are increasingly making ethically-based decisions.

In an era of eroding trust and increased polarisation, professional communicators have a challenge to address this. Add to this fake news, deep fakes and other social movements we really do need to understand our audiences as this could have a significant impact on the reputation of our clients or organisations.

Our profession’s aim is to establish and maintain a positive reputation for our employers or clients amongst their publics. So the case for inclusion is apparent. We’re not looking to call out examples of communication fails. However some of these fails could have been avoided if we had the right decision makers in the room. Those who really understand the target audience and use the unique insights from those who come from the communities we’re seeking to influence or develop a relationship with.

Having a diverse range of voices and knowledge in the room can avoid blind spots, such as those that led to accusations that the CIA ‘was too white’ to spot 9/11. These are the very some blind spots that can lead to well-meaning and well laid plans receiving a negative reaction and, unless you believe the adage that bad news is still good news, who wants that?

Does our profession have a diversity problem? The stats certainly appear to say so. The latest CIPR State of the Profession report makes for grim reading – from a lack of BAME people in the profession with even fewer in senior positions to boardrooms still dominated by males. But this problem also affects us in the NHS and our own stats, including a State of the Profession report (NHS Providers, 2018) for communications professional in the NHS. This showed similar trends although it’s worth noting we’re doing better than the wider industry in that the majority of senior communicators are female.

Before we go into what the NHS engagement and communications development steering group is setting out to achieve, it’s worth highlighting two excellent programmes that may benefit your organisation or your clients.

Firstly the Taylor Bennett Foundation, supported by both the CIPR and the PRCA, have an established programme to encourage BAME school and college leavers as well university graduates to consider a career in communications. Currently their work is primarily in London and Edinburgh but do have a look at what they do as it may inspire you to see things differently.

And then we have the inspiring Elizabeth Bananuka who has set up BME PR Pros and has lots of exciting initiatives planned. She’s always on the look out for mentors and mentees – have a look at what she’s doing and you may well be able to offer your expertise.

Back to the work we’re doing. Our initial efforts are focused on addressing the disproportional under-representation of BAME people within the communications and engagement workforce, with even fewer in senior decision-making positions. We’re proud to say that the NHS is the biggest employer of BAME people in the country with a significant number in frontline healthcare roles. That’s the great news, the not so great news is that we continue to struggle to see equal progression into senior leadership roles for people from BAME backgrounds as highlighted by the Workforce Race Equality Standard.

An NHS Communications Trainee Programme has been established with NHS Providers and we welcomed our first trainee this autumn. This is based on a scheme developed by South West London and St. George’s Mental Health Trust that’s had three trainees since 2017 and South London and the Maudsley that’s just about to take on a new communications trainee from January 2020 – all aimed at giving local people who represent the community we serve an opportunity to start in comms.

So, our focus over the coming months is to learn from other communication development programmes for BAME colleagues, to work towards setting up a pilot apprenticeship project in London to begin with before expanding this further and to raise the profile of the diversity of our profession.  Our ultimate aim is to attract, retain and progress BAME colleagues so that we can have a truly representative group of professionals. This in turn helps us meet the ambition laid out in the NHS Long Term Plan as we look to change the relationship between the NHS and the communities we serve.

That’s what we’re doing, we’d love to hear about your work and if you have any ideas that could help us close that diversity gap please get in touch: nhsi.commsdevelopment@nhs.net or shak.rafiq@nhs.net.

This article has been written by Shak Rafiq in collaboration with Alison Brown, Julie Clayton, Ranjeet Kaile and Richard Mountford who are leading the equality and inclusion workstream for the NHS engagement and communications development steering group.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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