Councils employ a vast range of people to do a vast range of things, and it appears to me that there is a huge gap between perception and reality in terms of which of those jobs are most useful, and the relative cost of them to the taxpayer. I keep meaning to write a detailed post about this, but first there is a very specific point raised today at ConservativeHome‘s Local Government page. While generally taking in the range of Conservative opinion, this is a good place for anyone with an interest in local government issues to keep up with interesting thoughts and opinions – I say that not only because they gave me a guest column, it’s genuinely true.
I am concerned that the debate is pointing in the wrong direction with a post today however – it very clearly illustrates a problem, but also contains a wood which I suspect could be seen more clearly if some of the trees were not in the way. The post in question berates Boris Johnson for continuing to employ a large number of diversity officers, and in particular scoffs at his explanation that they are useful for the Authority in working towards the promotion of integration. The view of the author is that rather than promoting integration, diversity officers promote division and a grievance culture.
Now, it is entirely possible that in some – or even many, I have no idea – cases, diversity officers do that. It may perfectly well be that the GLA doesn’t need the number of diversity officers it has, or even that it could get away without having any. I suspect that as well as meeting (sometime arbitrary, sometimes governmental, sometimes logical) targets around diversity of employees, equality of senior appointment between genders, and so on, a large part of the case for diversity officers is not just to have the job done, but to create a ‘paper trail’ at which the authority can point in the event of a legal challenge to their recruitment or pay policies.
A diversity officer job description could equally be written to recruit someone who spends their time on activities of which the writer would approve (they may or may not approve enough to believe that it should be done with taxpayers’ money, but that’s not the issue at hand). Looking at ways to encourage the recruitment of young Muslim women into the workforce at Bradford Council might be condemned as ‘positive discrimination’, but it would certainly assist the ‘integration’ desired, if (to stereotype crudely) the alternative were that they overwhelmingly became non-working housewives with few contacts outside their community, while the Council’s staff were overwhelmingly white with similarly little integration.
More prosaically a diversity officer might look at ways to champion English lessons for asylum seekers and new immigrants, looking at ways to promote and deliver these through the Council’s high contact rate with immigrant communities – through social workers, schools, housing offices, and so on. They might help deliver training for social workers on how to look out for the warning signs of forced marriage, and make it clear that in this country we expect young people to have the right to choose their own life partner, not have one chosen for them.
The same is true of regularly-maligned European Officers, which right-wing commentators generally describe as ‘taxpayer funded propagandists for European integration’. I have no doubt that some of them are, but equally there’s no need to hold any kind of fixed position on the merits or demerits of European integration (rant follows next week) to work for an authority monitoring the likely impact on local government of European legislation, attempting to persuade legislators to amend that legislation in a more sensible direction, and examining how the maximum amount of EU funding for desireable local projects can be extracted.
Which brings me to my final point. Boris says his diversity officers are there to promote integration. ConservativeHome says that in fact they promote separation. If that is the case (again, if, this post is rather hypothetical) then the problem is less with the diversity officers, and more with Boris not being in control of the authority he runs. If I employ someone to do X, and they in fact do Y, it seems incumbent on me to look in more detail at how the problem has arisen, rather than simply to remove the post and cease doing X or Y.
If I employ someone to retile my kitchen floor, and in fact they repaint my bathroom wall, then it’s possible they’re an idiot – but it’s equally possible I am not capable of giving clear instructions, or that my instructions are not respected, or that there is a chain of command which breaks down somewhere between planning and execution – and any of those would be a problem on a much larger and more urgent scale than the employment of a few people with funny job titles.