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.