Good riddance to Equality Impact Assessments (Cameron is right that they are a bureaucractic nonsense, I should know)

In his speech to the CBI conference today, David Cameron said:

“I care about making sure we treat people equally. But let’s have the courage to say it, caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense.

We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff.

So I can tell you today we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments.”

I was one of the people who churned out equality impact assessments (EIAs) for a local authority and I can confirm that Cameron is right,  they are a bureaucratic nonsense. I filled them in every year to meet the policy team’s target for EIAs.  I had no idea whether the projects I was filling them in for discriminated against marginalised groups.  We were assessing the impact of abstractions on other abstractions from afar. It was one of the most bizarre things I was ever asked to do. When I raised this, I was told by well-meaning people –  “It’s not about going to the nth degree, just fill it in the best you can”.  So I did.

Churning out bureaucratic nonsense is not the same as making sure a policy doesn’t discriminate against marginalised groups.

Writing something down does not make it true. Writing something down and handing it in does not make it true.

You could say that writing it down and having a checklist helps you to think about whether your project takes into account marginalised groups. You would be wrong. People fill them in when the policy or project is well underway or finished. They are filled in to demonstrate, defend and to explain. They are filled in for filling ins sake. This is where it stops.  Even if they are filled in at the beginning of the policy, how do you know it was filling in the EIA that made sure the policy didn’t discriminate? Is the person who fills it in properly more likely to make sure they policy doesn’t discriminate in the first place? What is the link between filling in the form and what actually happens in reality? How do we know they are related? Is it even possible to find out?

No one fills them in to learn and understand what the real problems are. To learn and understand what the real problems are, you would need to start from a different mindset – one called STUDY AND LEARN and not COMPLY. You need to understand and feel the implications of what you do. Only then will you care. You don’t need a form to learn. You need an organisation that supports and encourages you to learn and not one, like mine, that supported and encouraged you to comply.

To learn about different needs, you should to study them in the context of your specific service and then design a service to meet them.  No need for any demonstrating or handing in of forms. You would be doing it because it is normal and necessary. And because it’s cheaper to design a service that meets the variety of demand, both presenting demand and hidden demand.

People fill in forms and think they have done something towards equality. It’s a nonsense.

In the council policy team, we filled in dozens of EIAs over the years. Meanwhile:

Some big things

  • All the people making the decisions – directors and most heads of service were able-bodied, middle-aged or old white men.
  • The majority of PAs and secretaries were women
  • Complaints about services for vulnerable people in adult social care, children’s services and social housing continued to rise
  • The council’s workforce remained unrepresentative of the area it served
  • The politicians remained unrepresentative of the people they served
  • Services to victims of domestic violence, older people and disabled people were cut

Some little things

  • People used phrases like ‘wheelchair bound’ in the council magazine
  • A director snaked his hand around my waist in a management team meeting to “get past me”. I didn’t feel I could say anything.
  • A head of service said “I would recognise that arse anywhere!” as he followed me up the stairs into a conference room (yes, I know it’s funny, try not to laugh, this is serious!)
  • My colleagues didn’t bother to take the hearing loop to public meetings because it “took too long to put up”
  • A councillor used racist language in a Cabinet meeting and no one said anything, including me
  • The reception area was regularly used as a drop off point for big boxes of leaflets so wheelchair users had to “make a fuss” to get past
  • None of the male councillors I worked with used a microphone in public meetings because they thought their voices were loud enough (they weren’t)

Did anyone do an Equality Impact Assessment on those big and little things?

Freestyle, impromptu EIAs completed by junior people like me who care about equality were not welcome.

I agree that discrimination is a huge problem. No doubt I too have unwittingly contributed to it or colluded with it.  I see it everywhere I go.

But filling in forms is no substitute for having the courage to do something about it.

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9 Responses to Good riddance to Equality Impact Assessments (Cameron is right that they are a bureaucractic nonsense, I should know)

  1. Bertie Bassett says:

    I think you need to give credit to the idea of thinking carefully around a policy of change centred on assessing impact on under represented and catered for sectors of society such as women and the blacks.
    “Forms” as you call them can help the policy officer focus in on otherwise hidden issues such as incorrect language such as ” lesbian bound” or “Polish plumber”.

  2. sondek says:

    I only ever completed one EIA. Before then, I had never heard of them and only completed that one to get a tick on a checklist. However, spending time doing so made me stop and think. Maybe being one of those able-bodied, aging, white, male decision makers, I needed the obvious pointed out to me, but as a result of that EIA I changed how that service was going to be delivered, and got extra funding to make sure what was delivered worked for a group that hadn’t been considered. Which prompted me to start actively looking for alternative perspectives and so maybe EIAs got systemthinkingforgirls an extra subscriber.

    Having said that, working in an organisation for whom the end point is the production of a form rather than a genuine assessment (hit the target, but miss the point) must be soul destroying and I could imagine EIAs being less generously regarded.

    I’m not convinced the problem of EIAs not doing what they were intended is best solved by just get rid of them. Perhaps it’s more about an easy target for a government wanting to be seen to reduce bureacracy introduced by a previous administration. Though continuing Cameron’s statement from where you left off, “You no longer have to do them if these issues have been properly considered”. Which begs the question how do you show you’ve considered the issues covered by an EIA? This will either result in those issues being ignored or a whole new set of locally produced forms doing pretty much what an EIA does, but called something else.

    • Thank you for your comment. It’s really interesting to hear you changed your perspective and the delivery of your service as a result of completing an EIA. I stand corrected. I made a generalisation made on my own experience. I agree that locally produced forms with a different name aren’t the solution either. I think what you say about the current government wanting to ditch the last government’s policies is a good point too.

      There must be another way to make people stop and think that doesn’t lead to ticking boxes and bureaucracy. So, we keep the ‘stop and think’ bit but ditch the rest of it.
      I guess we’ll never know the ratio of EIAs completed to the number of people who changed how they delivered their service as a result. From what I observed in my own local authority, I am guessing it is quite low. This makes me think as a policy, it is poor value for money. I also remember colleagues who thought they had done equalities after filling in an EIA when they had done nothing of the sort! In this respect, I think they can be dangerous.

      You say ‘how do you show you’ve considered the issues covered by an EIA”. I would suggest that it should be less about showing and more about learning. Certainly when I was a local government officer, we spent a lot of time showing and proving up the hierarchy and little time learning and understanding what was going on at the interface between the frontline and the citizen.

      I am sure there is evidence about what reliably and consistently helps people to see, understand and act on discrimination. Is there a brilliant training course? Is it a hearts and minds thing? Is it a normative experiential thing? Does the motivation and commitment need to come from the chief executive? Let’s hope the clever people in Whitehall (as David Cameron calls them) find some evidence and use it when dreaming up and testing out the alternative to EIAs.

  3. sondek says:

    I wouldn’t want claim my experience of a positve impact from completing an EIA to the norm and I suspect many do regard it as a tick box to be completed. In part I believe that large (public) organisations are generally very risk-averse, which leads to an EIA being used as a shield to hide behind in case equality criticism heads their way.
    I trust Cameron has found some different clever Whitehall people to those who Blair asked to come up with EIA (or just asks the same ones a different question) and we get a clever alternative.
    Personally, I find ‘seeing, understanding and acting on discrimination’ to be hard. To be precise, the ‘acting on’ is (usually) easy; ‘seeing’ is slightly harder and understanding the hardest of all. I will never know what it’s like to be [insert name of discriminated group] and so cannot easily see the world from that hilltop. If there were a brilliant course, then there wouldn’t be so many well-meaning, but ineffective ones; a CE can certainly have an impact (positive or negative), though from observation I wonder how many get that high by being sensitive to such issues. By the time I finally retire I hope I will be better at it, but until then I expect it to be a constant lifetime learning activity.

  4. Different clever people indeed! I thought the same thing.

    I like what you say about a constant lifetime learning activity. Me too.

    Thanks again for your comments. Lots to think about.

  5. Charles Beauregard says:

    I worked for a government department, and was occasionally asked to contribute to an EIA. They had to do these when they introduced or changed a government policy. The pretext of my contribution was “give me some evidence that shows this policy does not discriminate against anyone”.

    I more recently had a days training on EIAs. The trainer was very passionate and made a good case for their value if they are done properly and used properly.

    The key here is that, in my experience, they are not done or used properly. Within the management culture of compliance in most organisations EIAs become, for most people, another chore – an annoying box that needs to be ticked. They are done because they have to be done, and then hidden away in the project folder, never to be looked at again unless an auditor starts snooping.

    They are something that is well intentioned, but in practical terms have no or little real value.

    So for once I agree with David Cameron – lets get rid of EIAs and do something better and more meaningful instead.

    • FreddieW says:

      What put the tin lid on it for me was being advised – by our Equalities Officer – that removing a service that only helped certain disabled people, was a step towards greater equality, as it meant that no disabled people received the service.

    • Yes, hidden away in a folder indeed. I guess when you are asked to give evidence to demonstrate it, you find some, don’t you?

      I had the same experience with the training -absolutely brilliant and inspiring. But what’s where it stopped.

      I was surprised to agree with David Cameron too. This doesn’t make us bad people!

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