13 June 2022

The fractal blob: how EDI has crept into every level of the public sector

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As part of his welcome war on waste in the NHS, Health Secretary Sajid Javid reportedly intends to take on the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) blob, abolishing a swathe of ‘equality and diversity’ positions within the health service bureaucracy. Each EDI job ended will liberate between £25,000 and £100,000 a year for the diagnosis, treatment and care of actual patients – helping, however marginally, to cut the enormous NHS backlog.  

This is a common-sense initiative and is long overdue. But without a joined-up strategy and wider backing from his Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues, Javid is unlikely to make much progress. The problem is, when it comes to the public sector, it’s diversity and inclusion managers all the way down

Allow me to illustrate this point with an example. Earlier this year, I wrote about the pressing need to recapture ‘the commanding heights of the knowledge economy from the EDI blob’. The object of my ire was UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – the umbrella organisation for the UK’s nine research councils and hence responsible for over £8bn of annual R&D funding. UKRI had just published a 19-page ‘equality, diversity and inclusion strategy’ accompanied by a 4-page glossary to help readers get to grips with the woke argot it contains.

I tried to show how misguided EDI criteria were warping research priorities, wasting precious public money and creating a cascade of bad incentives down into the universities and research institutions, hurting rigorous scholarship and researchers’ productivity. This in turn risked undermining a key plank of the Government’s long-term economic strategy: boosting the UK’s mediocre post-2008 growth rates through more R&D investment.

But it’s now clear that this warning fell on deaf ears. Just a few days ago, one of the nine constituent UKRI bodies, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), published its very own 21-page ‘diversity and inclusion living action plan 2022-2025’ covering much of the same ground. Naturally, all the same criticisms apply. But what’s really depressing is the duplication of work and jobs going on at different levels of the R&D funding hierarchy. 

This isn’t just some rogue faction within UKRI either. Similar initiatives and jobs can be found not only at each of the research councils, but at the next layer down too. Take for example a university research consortium which nominally exists ‘to deliver sustained and coordinated research’ into offshore renewable energy, sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Among the achievements they trumpet is a 46-page report into EDI in the offshore engineering profession. 

According to the report’s authors: ‘the renewable energy sector, and offshore wind in particular, has a unique opportunity to prioritise EDI and to consider ways in which it can be addressed early on’. All the usual woke concepts like ‘unconscious bias’, ‘reverse mentoring’ and ‘intersectionality’ inevitably turn up. And then there’s this.

But to climb back out of that particular rabbit hole, my point is this: Britain’s EDI state is fractal. The same patterns recur again and again at each level of public sector administration. Javid is going to find the same in the NHS as he plays EDI whack-a-mole across hundreds of NHS organisations employing 1.2m people (in England). 

Near enough every hospital or trust is going to have its team of Diversity Programme Officers (£29k) and Senior Diversity and Inclusion Officers (£36) reporting to an Equality and Diversity Manager (£50k) and ultimately to a Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (£67k). Then each of England’s 42 Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) is going to have a bevy of EDI mandarins to assist the plethora of EDI committees. And it doesn’t stop at the ICS level. The same pattern is repeated again at NHS England and other national NHS bodies. For example, NHS Blood and Transplant has a ‘Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer’ (£82k). 

So that’s fractal EDI in R&D funding and the NHS. Now multiply this tendency inside each of the components of the UK’s sprawling state edifice – 23 ministerial departments, 20 non-ministerial departments and over 500 other public bodies, agencies and organisations, not to mention three devolved administrations, 398 local authorities and 53 police forces. Thanks to the public sector equality duty, every one of these entities will have at minimum an EDI strategy with people responsible for writing, updating and monitoring it.

Indeed, the tentacular EDI blob is having all sorts of pernicious effects on public sector and broader productivity – that’s probably where the real economic damage is being done. But just focusing on the narrow fiscal side of things, the aggregate implications are pretty shocking, given the seeming size of the EDI state. It’s hard to be sure just how big it is, but we can at least think about some plausible upper and lower bounds.

The UK’s public sector workforce consists of 5.72m people – a third in healthcare, a quarter in education and a fifth in public administration, with the rest in the police, the armed forces and so on. Assuming 0.1% of these workers are ‘Diversity and Inclusion Managers or in cognate roles, that’s 5,720 people in EDI jobs in the public sector. Even lowballing their salaries – let’s say £35,000 on average – that’s still a total wage bill of £200m per annum.

Now let’s assume 1% of these workers are in EDI roles (57,200) and keep the lowballed average salary. That adds up to a wage bill of slightly over £2bn per annum – about 1% of total public sector pay. So you could fire every single EDI bureaucrat and use the savings to give everyone else in the public sector – nurses, soldiers, police officers, train drivers, firemen – an extra 1% pay rise this year. Or indeed just bank the savings from trimming back a bloated trillion-pound state

The real size of the EDI blob is probably somewhere in between these one-in-a-thousand and one-in-a-hundred estimates, with a total wage bill measured in the hundreds of millions if not the billions of pounds. But whatever its exact size, it is clearly well-entrenched, having garrisoned not only the commanding heights of the British state but also a maze of outworks, redoubts and fallback points across every level of the public sector – true strength in depth. 

Javid is right to go after the EDI bureaucrats wasting NHS resources. But unless there is a concerted effort to tackle the problem right across government, he looks unlikely to succeed in his battle with the multi-layered EDI state.  

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Karl Williams is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.