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ESG News Review: Does the Government diversity and inclusion pushback make any difference to business?

Plans by the UK’s Government to scrap diversity and inclusion roles in the civil service have had media - particularly those with an anti-woke agenda - scrambling this week.

Esther McVey, the so-called minister for common sense, kicked up a storm when she announced that she intended to suppress diversity initiatives amongst civil servants, with the wearing of rainbow lanyards being firmly in the sights as an example of what she dubbed the “inappropriate back-door politicisation of the civil service, which diverts time and resources from that focus on the public.”

The planned changes included the banning of spending on diversity initiatives unless signed off by a minister or in collaboration with existing external partners, and the abolition of diversity networks such as groups of religious faiths or the LGBTQ+ community. A Daily Telegraph opinion pieces wrote of “woke measures swamping the public sector”.

But one union has already described it as “ticking off culture war talking points” and said that such restrictions could result in a civil service out of touch with the public or lacking the specialist knowledge it needed to serve communities.

It’s a move that has been made while pointing to a need to ensure diversity and inclusion is not politicised, but has itself been criticised for trying to score political points.

There has been a parallel story developing in the US, where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has stopped using diversity statements for faculty hiring, making it the first elite university of its kind to row back on a recruitment practice that has been criticised and politicised. The Daily Mail was all over it.

Many of us in business reading those reports will have asked ourselves how this may all impact corporate diversity and inclusion programmes and commitments.

Most firms would likely say that they will make their own decisions in this area, rather than following any course from government or academia, and do so in the interests of their people, broader stakeholder communities and society at large.

But read the UK Government and MIT news more closely, and in both cases the organisations are attempting to point to evidence that such initiatives are ineffective, rather than any expressed suggestion that being more diverse or inclusive is not a path to follow.

For ESG strategies, this raises an interesting point: companies may feel and believe that diversity and inclusion is a priority, but while there will be metrics to show how action is making a difference, what firm evidence do they have that it is one of the things which matters most to their business?

In other words, is the strategy based on clear facts, such as a detailed materiality assessment, so that the action it drives and the impact it has can be defended robustly - and can counter any arguments that it is not effective?

Think about other social drivers - the S in ESG - and the case can be easier to make. If a company established that human rights are a material issue and it commits to action to address that, the connection between evidence, change and value is likely clearer-cut. But in the area of diversity and inclusion, many companies would probably say that while they have data, it is obvious to them that it is the right thing to commit to, and they can point to society calling for continued action to improve it too.

Few would argue with that, or feel it is a good idea to even question it. But again, commitments tend to be easier to defend and maintain with hard facts.

With diversity and inclusion though, hard evidence will surely only have limited value. Doing what you think and feel is right as an organisation will always be important, or hold sway.

Becoming more diverse and more inclusive, and the benefits it brings to all, is surely common sense. More evidence of impact would help though, not least for when a ‘minister of common sense’ enters the conversation.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at PR agency BOLDT.

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