What is the primary function of an institution or organisation: to fulfil its official objectives as well as possible, or to provide equitable access to itself?
If you picked the first option, you’re either an optimist or perhaps a time traveller. For the latter is very much the spirit of our age.
One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of this sort of thinking. The House of Commons, for example, has been transformed since the early Noughties by the quest to make it “family friendly”.
This is a doomed quest; what use is clocking off at 5pm if, like most MPs, your family life is not in London? But deep cuts to sitting hours, and thus to MPs’ ability to actually perform their role, are outweighed by the goal of securing a different mix of MPs.
Despite this, sometimes it takes a more practical example to really bring home the consequences of this thinking. This weekend, for example, there was the realisation that the Fire Service no longer expects recruits to be able to pull an average-weight adult from a burning building.
If you take the view that the Fire Service should be about giving everybody who wants to join it an equal chance of doing so, it makes sense. Rigorous physical tests, especially those involving carrying heavy weights, would strongly favour male applicants, and indeed appeared to do so.
But those standards were surely devised for some reason other than a conspiracy to keep women out of the fire service. Even as long ago as 2011, the tone struck by a Fire Service spokesperson reveals how completely this way of thinking had already taken over:
The influence of such thinking needs to be checked, and not just because you might someday find yourself trapped in a burning building with a firefighter unable to lift you.
Covid-19 has cruelly exposed serious shortcomings in the United Kingdom’s state capacity. Aside from a lucky break with the vaccination programme, the State’s response to the crisis has been deeply underwhelming.
If the Government is serious about delivering a much-needed overhaul of the public sector and the Civil Service, a shift back towards merit — defined by the actual requirements of the role, and not an idealised vision of the composition of the workforce — must be part of the solution.
Perhaps ministers could consider an ‘Efficacy Act’, a counterpoint to the Equality Act, imposing a statutory duty on public sector bodies to put performance outcomes first. It could also create an independent mechanism for ensuring they do so, rather than having management mark its own homework.
Such a programme could actually be great for accessibility; CV-blind recruitment and entrance exams, for example, would be a boon to able applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it would frustrate diversity managers by placing the final shape of the workforce beyond their control.