Our public service needs cultural diversity targets

Jin Lim

Australia deserves a public service that embodies its multiculturalism – diversity targets are a proven way to get there.

22 January 2024

Australia is a vibrant multicultural country. More than half of Australians are either first or second generation immigrants. However, our public servants – the group deciding, advising and implementing government policy that affects all Australians – does not reflect this diversity. One in five Australians are born in a non-English speaking country, while only 14.7 per cent of staff in the Australian Public Service (APS) are born in non-English speaking countries. To truly represent Australia, the APS would require roughly 8,000 more staff from non-English speaking backgrounds. A lack of representation is also present across our state and territory public services.

The problem becomes acute at the senior executive level. Only 7 per cent of senior executives in the APS identify as being from a non-English speaking background. As a side note, being from a non-English speaking background does not indicate poorer English language ability, it is merely the best available statistical measure of cultural diversity we have.

Our public service clearly has a diversity problem. But why? And will it simply be solved with time?

Recent research by Robert Breunig, Nu Nu Win and David Hansell from the Crawford School of Public Policy suggests that APS staff from non-English speaking backgrounds face systemic barriers to promotion. Without removing these barriers, our public service will never truly reflect Australians. Comparing a similar employee from a non-English and English-speaking background, the employee from a non-English background is less likely to be promoted at every level. The problem becomes most acute when being promoted into the APS’s Senior Executive Service. Staff from non-English speaking backgrounds (even if they were born in Australia or arrived before the age of 6) were nearly half as likely to be promoted compared to a similar staff member from an English-speaking background.

The obvious implication: the best people for jobs – especially critical leadership roles – are not being appointed to them. This results in a public service that is less prepared to deal with modern challenges. Consider our relationships with countries in Asia. The department in charge of managing our relationship with other countries – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – has only 1.2 per cent of its APS staff proficient in Mandarin or Cantonese, below the share of Australians who are. For context, China is Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for one-third of Australia’s global trade. We are failing miserably at leveraging the skills and perspectives of our incredibly diverse population.

Perhaps more critically, the lack of diversity in the public service also means that segments of Australian society are given less consideration in policy debate and implementation. This reared its head during the pandemic.

During harsh lockdowns of public housing towers in Victoria, the health department provided non-halal food hampers to families confined in their cramped apartments, many of whom were Muslim. Indeed, translations of critical health advice were completed with Google Translate, which gave nonsensical translations that were obviously not checked with someone who spoke the language. Anyone that speaks a second language could tell you how fraught this approach was. Would a more diverse public service have made these errors? Probably not if it reflected the composition of our communities.

It is time to do something about the lack of diversity in the public service. Implementing cultural diversity targets is the first step in this journey. Diversity targets create an organisational ecosystem and accountability to ensure workplaces are inclusive and unfair institutional barriers to getting promoted or hired are removed.

Diversity targets have worked in the past. In the Australian Public Service Commission’s (APSC) 2016-19 Gender Equality Strategy, APS Agencies were required to set gender equality targets across all leadership positions and business areas, with agency heads held accountable to achieving these targets. Since implementation, the share of women in the Senior Executive Service increased to half of all senior executive positions, up from around 42 per cent of senior executives in 2015. Gender equality targets provided a catalyst for greater flexibility and innovative employment practices across the APS, in turn providing a more inclusive workplace for women.

Critics of diversity initiatives argue that they result in tokenistic promotions that can lead to resentment and a less inclusive workplace. While these concerns are legitimate, diversity targets as opposed to diversity quotas are less likely to produce these effects. Unlike quotas, which focuses on mandatory representation, targets are measurable goals that focuses an organisation’s attention towards removing systemic barriers that entrench a non-merit-based system. A well implemented target aims to create an inclusive organisation culture where everyone’s perspectives and contributions are valued – a key requirement that allows organisations to reap the benefits of diversity.

There is growing action to improve cultural diversity across the public service. In February, the APSC is due to release its inaugural Cultural and Linguistically Diverse Employment (CALD) Strategy. It is critical that this strategy imposes minimum standards on APS agencies to improve cultural diversity, including requiring agencies to publish cultural diversity targets and organisational plans to achieve them. This would ensure all APS agencies are working towards improving cultural diversity, mirroring the APSC’s highly successful 2016-19 Gender Equality Strategy. Indeed, action by the APSC would encourage state and territory public services without their own cultural diversity targets to follow.

Australia is built on egalitarian values. We collectively dream of a country where all are provided the same opportunities no matter their background. The lack of diversity in our public service – an institution for all Australians – is an affront to our egalitarian values. It results in poorer outcomes for all Australians. Yet there is a proven method to improve diversity: implementing diversity targets. Cultural diversity targets should be implemented now across the public service.

Jin Lim is currently undertaking a Master of Public Policy at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. Prior to this, Jin worked at the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He graduated with first-class honours majoring in Economics from Monash University.

Image credit: Getty Images

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