Diversity and inclusion has become almost sacred across our workplaces and public sector. A massive architecture of programmes designed to engineer equality of outcomes between groups has been created, with eye-watering salaries doled out. The BBC’s June Sarpong pockets £445,000 per year, pro rata. These measures tend to avoid scrutiny but it is about time we examined them more closely because when we do they invariably flop.

An article in the Harvard Business Review¸ written by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, with the title Why Diversity Programmes Fail is a case in point. The authors argued that most conventional corporate diversity and inclusion programmes fail or even backfire. Having studied 800 American firms over thirty years, they concluded that measures such as mandatory “diversity training” tended to be associated with reductions in minority leadership, not increases. They concluded such measures tended to stoke resentment, while noting some significant class action discrimination-related lawsuits, for example Merrill Lynch paying out half a billion dollars over 15 years. As Kalev and Dobbin wrote, diversity schemes are “designed to pre-empt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions.”

Their ground-breaking research, published in 2016, was intriguingly overlooked by the government’s McGregor-Smith review into ethnic minority progression in the workplace, published in 2017, which called for mandatory unconscious bias training for all employees. I estimated this would cost at least £915 million and yet, an evaluation conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team found it does not work. Equalities minister Liz Truss was more emphatic saying in 2020:

“Study after study has shown that unconscious bias training does not improve equality, and in fact can backfire by reinforcing stereotypes and exacerbating biases.”

She pledged “we will no longer be using it in the government or civil service”. Yet, the Daily Telegraph reported in February of this year, that unconscious bias training was still in use in Whitehall, with £370,000 spent over an unspecified time period.

Diversity and inclusion is firmly entrenched in the NHS. Consider its Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES). This is an NHS programme designed to measure “inequalities” among workers in NHS trusts using a series of statistical indicators with a view to ending them. The problem is that the statistics themselves have largely not budged since the programme’s inception. Nor do they inter-correlate across NHS trusts, implying a lack of statistical validity – they don’t measure what they purport to measure, namely “inequality”. It has further been criticised by its own founders, with one former director describing its chances as “not a hope in hell”. NHS diversity mangers will be trousering sums between £40,000 and £90,000 per year.

Despite its gigantic failings, diversity and inclusion is always in vogue. Its corporate sector is currently valued at $9.3 billion, and projected to grow to $15.4 by 2026. At an event at a major professional services firm, not so long ago, I heard one diversity and inclusion manger say how his department had thrown the kitchen sink at increasing the diversity of its senior ranks, to little avail. I was struck by this public admission of failure. It betrayed a confidence that one would not get sacked, no matter what one did. In business, if you fail to do what you say you are going to do, what normally tends to happen?

All too often, these programmes look to increase diversity at the top without consideration of what should realistically be expected. It is commonly assumed the top tier of any elite profession should reflect the population share of the country or workforce as a whole, in terms of ethnicity. For example, the Home Office has a target of 12 per cent for ethnic minorities at senior level. But this ignores the fact that the share of those entering the Civil Service fast stream – its talent spotting programme for future leadership – was 7 per cent around the turn of the century. The actual figure for very top of the Home Office is 6 per cent, in line with its historically available talent pool. Forcing diversity beyond this, will likely foster rushed and inappropriate appointments.

Rewards for failure in the NHS is evident with the recent creation of the NHS Race and Health Observatory. This recently published a report decrying the NHS for its racial “inequalities” which are “rooted in experiences of structural, institutional and interpersonal racism”. Those who are not white are treated worse, given the wrong treatment, and avoid getting help for “fear of racist treatment from NHS healthcare professionals”. Inspection of those behind the Observatory itself reveals many of its leadership have prior held positions of responsibility for WRES.

Reading the report itself, reveals its own conclusions to be far from cut and dry. My analysis, published for Civitas, shows the report – a literature review conducted by academics – referenced numerous studies showing sometimes equality of outcomes, for instance in mental health care. It further failed to consider survey evidence showing satisfaction with hospital care is roughly even across ethnic groups. And for all its bluster about the need for “radical action”, there is little idea as to what to do – its recommendations call for more data and more research – in other words, radical action includes finding out what radical action is.

These programmes assume we were all born yesterday, including those responsible – that they have no track records on which they can be judged.

Dr Richard Norrie is director of the Civitas statistics and policy research programme.