I have been thinking a lot about the killing of George Floyd and the discourse that it has (re-)energised about race across the world. As has been said, shouted and written on many a placard over the last couple of days: “it’s not enough not to be racist.”
Those of us who are or have reached positions of privilege must actively do more to combat racism and the inequality of opportunity that exists in the world today solely because of skin colour and heritage.
What role then should I and the company I co-founded play in addressing inequalities especially for Black people? What can we do to help people who feel discriminated against, marginalised, at risk of institutional neglect or “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness”, as Wendy Williams wrote in her review of the Windrush scandal.
In the past days I’ve been reading, asking friends, discussing with colleagues to better understand the problem – and what I have or have not done to exacerbate, ignore or just not help fix the problem. We work at the intersection of two sectors – government and technology – both of which struggle to ensure adequate representation of minorities but especially Black people.
The Government’s Race Disparity Audit published in 2019 showed that while the public sector is a major employer “ethnic minority employees are concentrated in the lower grades or ranks, and among younger employees.”
Court judges are disproportionately White, the senior ranks of the NHS are predominantly White and the vast majority of police officers are White. Ninety-four per cent of prison officers are White. They look after a prison population, a quarter of which is from Black, Asian and other minority backgrounds despite making up just 14% of the overall population. As the Lammy Review, commissioned by then-Prime Minister May, noted in a line that may surprise many – it certainly surprised me: “There is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people in prisons here than in the United States.”
Minority groups are also concentrated in the Civil Service’s lower grades. For example Black staff make up 1.3% of civil servants at senior levels. I don’t think there are any Permanent Secretaries from Black, Asian or other minorities.
These figures took on added force for me when I saw a LinkedIn comment by Phillip Orumwense, a senior official in Highways England. He wrote: “Without senior sponsorships (god fatherism), the chances of an ethnic minority breaking through on merit recognising cultural biases is far fetched.” Not only do the figures show a disparity but some senior officials do not seem to believe that the system they work in will treat them equitably and fairly.
Then there is the digital sector. In a report published last year by Atomico it was revealed that 84 per cent of European founders surveyed self-identified as White, while just 0.9 per cent self-identified as black. A survey by Diversity VC showed that 76 percent of UK venture capitalists are White – despite many of the firms being located in London, one of the most ethnically diverse regions in England and Wales where over 40% of residents identify as Asian, Black, Mixed race or Other minorities. Houston, we have a problem.
The issue is not only one of staff. The very substance of what we work on – technology in the public sector – can become a tool for racial discrimination. For example, AI systems created to support public services can discriminate against Black people. A good example is the COMPAS system is used in parts of the US to predict whether defendants will commit crime again. The idea is that COMPAS can help judges to determine whether somebody should be allowed to go on probation.
The COMPAS system does not use racial origin or skin colour as an input. But research showed in 2016 that COMPAS is racially biased. Black people are almost twice as likely as white people to be labelled a higher risk, but not actually reoffend. It makes the opposite mistake among whites: they are much more likely
than black people to be labelled lower risk, but go on to commit other crimes. As the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), a tenant in Public Hall, noted in their report on algorithmic bias, AI tools in public services “carry significant ethical risks.”
But avoiding discrimination is not enough. Public services, however digitally supported, have to do more than not do harm. They have to do good. That means understanding the needs of all citizens including people from Black and minority backgrounds. Technology obviously has a role to play in allowing policy-makers to better understand societal problems as well as test, pilot and ultimately scale interventions. But failure to consider the needs of different citizens may exacerbate existing inequalities.
So where PUBLIC works – on the cusp of government and technology – has a particular problem. I am now trying to answer three questions: What’s the right aim? What’s our role? What can we do?
The first question – what’s our aim – is critical. What am I trying to achieve? Have I succeeded when we back 3% of Black founders, because that is the proportion of Black people in the UK? Is it enough for PUBLIC to back different causes that combat racism? I don’t know the answer to this question yet, but would welcome input.
I think we start from a strong position, thanks to the concerted effort over many years by our Programme Director Mark Lazar and his team. We spend a lot of time focusing at the start of the funnel, seeking to entice people to join the programme and even earlier, just to think about govtech as a sector they might want to work in. We go to places where we are likely to meet more Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities.
On the face of it, our GovStart cohorts are very ethnically diverse. Across all our programmes, 42 % of startups have been founded or co-founded by a person with Black, Asian or other minority background. Nearly 20 % of the startups have been founded or cofounded by women; if you add the companies we have built and acquired outright, the number is even higher, as they have all either been led or co-founded by women.
The programme we have just finished running with the NHS – TechForce19 – had similarly high numbers but mirroring the GovStart programmes: a person with Black, Asian or other minority background founded or was a cofounder of 22 % of the companies; 44 % were founded or cofounded by a woman. I hope you’ll agree these are good numbers in comparison with the sector that we operate in.
But if we dig a bit deeper it’s clear that we still have problems. The majority of founders from a non-White ethnic background were not Black. In fact, we have only backed one company with an all-Black founding team. I don’t say that because I think we should have quotas or discriminate positively. I simply say that to illustrate the continuing challenge we face.
We are clearly above the comparable average overall, but under it when it comes to Black founders. So this is an area where we need to improve.
We also need to improve our recruitment practices. In some ways, PUBLIC is a diverse organisation. When we counted the languages spoken in what is still a small organisation, we found more than thirty, from Italian and Danish to Indonesian, German, Dutch and Burmese. We are 50/50 male and female. The second most senior leader after Alex and I who founded the business, is a woman. We have two Managing Directors – who lead country offices – one woman and one man. Of the three Directors-level staff, one is a woman.
But we have more to do. Women still tend to be at the more junior levels of our organisation. Our managers – Heads of Section and above – are all white. We don’t have a single Black employee.
That’s not good enough – not if we want to reflect the society we work in, lead the way vis-à-vis public administrations and gain access to great talent wherever it may come from.
It’s not that we are doing nothing. We work to eliminate bias in recruitment by using the Applied platform – which masks gender, background, race, schooling etc – from those selecting candidates to be interviewed. Check them out: https://www.beapplied.com/. (I declare an interest: we have invested in the business because we believe in their mission and approach). But we clearly need to think further about what to do to improve matters.
This brings me to the larger question – what’s our role? We are a small business, but have a name in the sector. We are respected, not least in many parts of the Civil Service. Do we have a role, therefore, beyond ensuring that we back a diverse group of entrepreneurs and hire from a diverse pool of people? I think so – but what?
We give to charity as a firm and take the choice of charity to a vote. This year the staff decided to back the Prince’s Trust and we offered free use of Public Hall to Under One Sky, a charity for homeless people. But we need to support charities working with minorities especially Black people. So we have made a donation to Black Lives Matter and will continue to back charitable work that supports people from ethnic minorities, especially Black backgrounds.
We also recognise that if you are Black and want to start or scale a technology company you are likely to be starting behind many others. Alex and I are therefore going to offer free-of-charge Office Hours from this week, for Black people who we can help with ideas, contacts etc. Book a slot here.
We are also going to offer penultimate/final year Black undergraduates who are interested in our work/sector/mission, a paid-for internship at PUBLIC. Details will be posted shortly. We are doing this not only to become more representative of the society the products we back and build serve but because we want access to the best talent wherever it may be; and we recognise we have to take further steps to reach that talent. We have a good track record of hiring interns on permanent contracts after their programme or helping them get jobs elsewhere.
Finally, we have to do more to ensure that as new technologies are adopted across the public sector they do not inadvertently discriminate against anyone but especially against Black people and indeed support all citizens. We will do more work internally to see what PUBLIC can do to complement the work of others such as CDEI, ODI, and the Ada Lovelace Institute.
We – Alex and I – do not have all the answers, of course we don’t. But we are listening, learning and seeking to find a way that chimes with the values that we built PUBLIC around and the vision of our company – to create a better-governed world for everyone. We want to hear your ideas and perspectives on how we do this together. I encourage you to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or Alex on email@example.com. Please also help to hold us to account after the videos have disappeared off social media and the majority has gone back to their old lives. We want our efforts to be lasting. We want to help contribute to lasting change.
CEO and Co-Founder, PUBLIC