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Peter George argues that the public sector should leverage its huge buying power to buy not just goods, works and services but also organisational change from its private sector suppliers.

There are numerous misconceptions about the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda. One of the biggest is that only those who have suffered from, say, racism or discrimination in the workplace (the workplace being the focus of this blog) have a responsibility to talk about the subject.

My appearance as a white man (although I am mixed heritage) means that I have enjoyed all the benefits of white privilege that others of my gender and complexion have. I have never been unfairly overlooked for a promotion; never been the subject of sexist “banter”; never been mistaken for a waiter/cleaner/security guard and never experienced a fundamental sense that my chances of succeeding in the workplace were inferior because of what I look like.

I would hate that. I cannot relate but I am angered by such outrageous instances of injustice in society.

When I initiated a conversation with my team about Black Lives Matter there was an immediate sense that we should not waste time discussing and diagnosing the problem. There already exist many brilliant texts by black people, women, those with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community among others, about the discrimination they suffer daily, the structures that create the problems, and what can be done to dismantle such structures.

What we all need to own and be focussed on, regardless of our gender, class, race, or age is how we can bring about change in our sphere of influence, however small that may be, and whoever we are. Many white men have hitherto chosen to not lead this process of change in any meaningful sense. This is despite the fact that, for example, diversity being good for business is well proven.

As a man of white appearance, I am now seriously engaged in promoting change within the industry that I work in and I am keen to encourage and inspire others to participate. I am particularly focused on the public sector (where I work) because they are spending taxpayer’s money and must demonstrate leadership on these issues. However, the arguments I am making equally apply to the private and third sectors.

I strongly believe that the public sector has an important role to deliver change within the private sector. Succinctly put my argument is this: the public sector must stop rewarding private sector companies with lucrative contracts if those companies do not share our values. We must instead leverage our huge buying power to buy not just goods, works and services but also organisational change by promoting values such as environmental sustainability, social value, and EDI.

The public sector spends a whopping £236 billion(!) annually buying goods, works and services predominately from private sector companies. So, what might happen if the public sector acted in concert and stopped automatically awarding contracts to companies who have a poor EDI track record? I am betting that would at least prompt a rethink, and in many companies it would also lead to organisational change.

This message that I have been making within my industry has resonated for two reasons. Firstly, as expected, we have quickly seen a willingness from companies to make changes to retain or win lucrative contracts. More interestingly, the message has struck a chord because we are moving beyond symbolic action, such as just requesting to review EDI policies, to taking direct action to deliver change.

I am deeply sceptical about EDI policies. I appreciate for many well-intentioned organisations the preparation of an EDI policy marks the logical start of a long journey of change which they are committed to completing. My concern is that for other organisations this step also marks the end of the journey. For those organisations, an EDI policy is no more than virtue signalling, a charade of change behind which the status quo is meticulously maintained.

What has become clear to me through numerous conversations is there is a lot of anger and frustration about what many view to be diversionary tactics to avoid making fundamental change. Publishing an EDI policy or appointing an EDI officer does not in itself change anything.

Real change means being able to look up at the top of an organisation and see people who both look like you and look different to you. It means seeing and feeling that recruitment and pay policies are fair and transparent. It means breaking up big contracts so that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can compete as SMEs are more likely to be led by women, non-white people, and other marginalised groups. I could go on, but when you stop to think about it you already know what genuine change looks like, so start asking for it.

We all know change starts from within. I would not have started encouraging change within my industry if I didn’t already lead a diverse team. We must therefore firstly demonstrate leadership within our own organisations; all of us, not just those who suffer from discrimination.

It is well documented that the younger generation places a higher emphasis on diversity in the workplace than previous generations. Young talent has choice and organisations will need more than an EDI policy to attract and retain such talent.