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Why the public sector needs a more diverse tech workforce

Miriam Piper
3 Jun 2022

How can public sector decision makers ensure greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the tech teams that develop our digital public services?

The relationship between diversity and inclusion

Is a more diverse tech team better equipped to create truly inclusive digital government services — ones that take into account language, culture, gender, age, and other human differences, while meeting our needs?

A recent Capgemini Research Institute report, The key to designing inclusive tech, shows that leaders in the public sector overwhelmingly say yes. Some 93% of public sector leadership executives surveyed for the report stated that a diverse and inclusive tech workforce leads to the development of more inclusive digital products and services.

The global findings strongly suggest that they are right. The research assessed the level of perceived inclusivity in both public and private sector organizations. The results were then correlated with the ability to build inclusive digital products and services. Globally, organizations with advanced inclusive practices are four times more likely to create inclusive products.

In spite of this, inclusive design remains a rare phenomenon. Just 31% of the public sector leaders and employees surveyed felt every digital product design and development step was associated with adequate checks or balances that ensured ethnicity and gender-based exclusions were minimized or removed.

The reality of tech-based discrimination

Research among 5,000 consumers and citizens for The key to designing inclusive tech revealed that a majority are concerned about discrimination due to the use of digital technologies.

Examples include full body scanners at airports more frequently flagging women of color based on their hairstyles; voice assistants having default female names and voices; and certain filters and photo editing apps working better for specific skin tones. 40% of ethnic-minority consumers faced difficulty in accessing information that was relevant to their gender/ethnicity while using healthcare services online.

Inclusive design practices allow organizations to avoid hard coding these types of discrimination into their digital services. They also help make services accessible to those with cognitive impairments. As we discussed in a recent article, A strong need for more accessible public sector websites, 84% of the public sector websites we surveyed across Europe did not comply with one or more Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) criteria. This creates real barriers for users with cognitive impairments, such as visual disabilities.

Addressing under-representation in tech teams

Addressing these issues begins in the crucial tech design function where there is a significant under-representation of women and ethnic minorities. Public sector leaders reported that on average, 20% of their IT team members were women and 17% were from ethnic minorities. Those proportions are lower still in areas including product management, product design, UI/UX research and design, AI, analytics, data science and data management, and cybersecurity.

While public sector leaders rate current inclusion practices highly, women and ethnic minorities in their tech teams disagree. 60% of public sector leaders believe that women and ethnic minorities are given an equal opportunity to grow in the organization, but only 24% of women and ethnic-minority employees in tech functions agree.
Similarly, 80% of leaders in the public sector believe their organization has a holistic talent strategy that utilizes data to help employees mitigate implicit biases at employee touchpoints. Yet just 20% of women and ethnic minority employees in public sector tech functions agree.

Just over half of women and ethnic minorities (55%) employed in public sector tech teams feel comfortable sharing personal experiences about their backgrounds with fellow employees; but far fewer (14%) with the leadership. Only 29% reported feeling a sense of belonging in their organization, feeling included and being duly respected.

The impact of an inclusive culture

Evidence clearly indicates that the right culture has a knock-on effect on the inclusivity of the products and services an organization develops. 45% of organizations (both public and private sector) with an inclusive culture versus just 20% of the remainder said the understanding of edge use cases for inclusive design got redefined when diversity and inclusion were promoted within tech teams.

Further, many of the inclusivity frontrunners surveyed believed involving women and ethnic-minority employees ensured back-end algorithms of digital products were more inclusive.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the use of AI-based systems. These are increasingly part of public sector efforts to transform operations, enhance service delivery, and aid employee productivity. Yet, AI still has some considerable way to go in terms of inclusivity, with issues around bias in the datasets used. This understandably results in a lack of trust among citizens in the groups unfairly represented by the data. If unresolved, this will have a negative impact on the uptake of digital citizen services, with the ensuing cost and efficiency implications.

With a more diverse tech team, this bias can be reduced. But when AI, analytics, data science and data management teams comprise just 14% and 13% of women and ethnic minorities respectively, as indicated by the public sector leaders surveyed, avoiding bias becomes an even greater challenge.

Removing the barriers to inclusivity and diversity

Clearly, it is the make-up of the tech team that is important here. Yet, there are specific barriers that need to be overcome if representation of women and ethnic minorities in the workforce is to be improved. Currently, just 11% of employees in the public sector believe their leadership encourages constructive dissent without negative consequences for women and ethnic minorities. Further, only 25% believe their leadership has an open-door policy in terms of discussing issues regarding diversity and inclusion.

With an inclusive team, it becomes possible to better understand the wants and needs of diverse service users and proactively address inclusion issues throughout the tech design process. This is important, with some 68% of ethnic minority and women consumers/citizens saying they expect organizations to ensure that the teams involved in designing apps/websites are diverse and representative of the user set they are designing for.

Key recommendations for public sector decision makers

So, how can government and the public sector move towards greater inclusivity in both tech teams and the products/services they develop? We believe that technology leaders must be accountable and should take ownership of building an effective inclusion and inclusive design strategy for their teams.

We recommend the following four steps:

  • Develop robust processes, practices, and value systems that enable inclusion. This should include a focus on inclusive language, an assessment of referral and culture-fit criteria for inclusive sourcing and hiring, and a determination to reduce micro-aggressions (intentional or unintentional discriminatory statements, actions, or incidents). It is also important to ensure there is transparency and equity in career progression and opportunities.
  • Drive fairness in AI systems and reduce algorithmic bias by conducting an impact-assessment analysis for algorithms and automated decisions. The datasets used to train AI systems for bias should also be screened and audited regularly.
  • Lay down the technological and data foundations for fostering inclusion by using tools and technology effectively to build greater inclusion. Data collection and management practices should be enhanced for better tracking of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Keep diverse users at the heart of designing inclusive tech/digital products and services by ensuring women and ethnic minorities play a critical role in their design and development. Checks and balances should be incorporated to ensure both tech design and tech infrastructure are inclusive.

A broader DEI scope

While the above has focused largely on the gender and ethnicity make-up of public sector tech teams, the topic of diversity, inclusion, and equity clearly has a far broader scope, and should always keep the citizen service user in mind. An elderly person with no access to a smartphone. A benefits seeker who is visually impaired. Citizens who need to listen to text, rather than read it. By embracing inclusivity at every level, tech teams have the opportunity to be at the forefront of driving accessible, and thus inclusive, government and public sector digital services.

We have seen over the past two years just how important this inclusivity is to ensure the most vulnerable citizens and business are not excluded from government and public sector services. We believe that this inclusivity begins in the workplace — in the tech teams designing the digital products, channels, and services that will underpin the public sector’s digital services journey over the coming years.

Find out more

Read the full Capgemini Research Institute report, The key to designing inclusive tech: creating diverse and inclusive tech teams. For analysis of eGovernment services in Europe including their accessibility, read our eGovernment Benchmark 2021.