An update from the NGDP’s Programme Manager, Helen Reeves, on the work the NGDP team is doing to ensure NGDP graduates are representative of the communities they serve, and that every candidate has a fair chance to succeed.
The National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) is the LGA’s flagship management trainee programme, which offers councils the opportunity to grow the next generation of talented public sector leaders. It is the only national graduate programme specifically for local government. Every year it provides the sector with high quality graduates ready to work in councils up and down the country, on projects and services of strategic importance. Importantly, it creates a pipeline of talent into the sector to ensure its future sustainability.
Two years ago, I wrote about the independent Equality and Diversity review we had commissioned back in 2019. There has been a big push for the sector to work on equality, diversity and inclusion since the events of the summer of 2020, but the team had already put this is as a number one priority for the scheme, and felt the external advice would be key to providing us with tangible actions we could take to improve the programme, not just pay lip service.
You can find out more about what that told us in my previous post. In summary, the NGDP received a broadly positive review, but was not without areas for improvement, particularly around our recruitment processes.
Two years on, I’m proud to say we have taken action against almost every recommendation made in the report, and the results are already starting to show. As a team, we are keen to show to our potential applicants, our current graduates and alumni, and the councils we partner with that the NGDP is in no way complacent on equality, diversity and inclusion; in fact, it has been the focus of a huge amount of the team’s work, and so it is worth covering in some detail the actions we have taken.
Marketing of the programme:
- We know that our own, excellent graduates are the single best salespeople for the NGDP. We use our graduates to represent the NGDP on university campuses up and down the country, and always take care to ensure we are representing the full diversity of our cohorts and their voices. Whilst we work with universities of all kinds and in all parts of the UK, we have specifically prioritised engagement with universities who rank highly for student diversity and in key social mobility sessions, and we give them a bit more attention. We run bespoke sessions which help demystify the application process and to challenge misperceptions about local government.
- To add to this, for the recruitment of Cohort 23 over autumn 2020 – winter 2021, we commissioned an expert marketing company who have done work with the NHS and TeachFirst, to deliver targeted marketing for BAME students and graduates. They were able to move at pace creating engaging new content to promote the NGDP, and to target it to specific groups on social media.
- That said, not just working with experts on a targeted campaign; with everything we do, we have revised all our marketing and web content with diversity in mind, and to show it is a priority.
- Over the past few months, we have also held a number of online panel events for potential applicants to hear from our diverse current graduate trainees, to address concerns around equality and diversity on the scheme and in the sector. This has been the specific theme of a number of events which attracted high levels of attendance and created real insights for us to take away.
- The research also found that BAME graduates are more likely to find out about the scheme direct from council websites, and so we developed resources and guidance for councils to do this and also to promote the scheme locally and internally.
- We also recently commissioned research from an expert external partner, looking at diverse students’ perceptions of local government with a view to shaping and targeting our marketing messages in the next round of recruitment.
- All our recruitment stages (e.g. online tests, video interviews, assessment centres) have been completely redesigned in conjunction with our partner councils with a view to reducing potential bias and adverse impact. We have now taken the decision to remove the verbal and numerical tests, from Cohort 24 onwards, that we previously used in the first stage of our recruitment. We could not be satisfied that they were not putting candidates off, particularly BAME applicants. Instead we will rely more heavily on our ‘Situational Judgement Test’ which relies more on values, and is more aligned with our ethos.
- Independent and professionally trained assessors are now used for all stages of assessment. As part of their work, these assessors have to benchmark and statistically analyse their work to ensure bias is not present.
- Recruitment is blind until assessment centre stage when the candidates naturally must interact with others.
- We statistically test for adverse impact at every stage (there are four) of the recruitment process; this enables us to make live decisions about the programme, such as to make a considered choice about how many candidates we take through to each stage and what that does for the cohort’s potential diversity.
- We believe we have made it easier year on year for candidates to disclose a disability and make special requirements available at every stage. However, there is still more work to do to support visually impaired candidates as we move into the virtual world of delivery.
- Based on feedback around drop out, once candidates have applied, we send them regular, friendly, and supportive communications, talking them through the next stages and signposting to advice to make the process seem less intimidating. We particularly draw on the experiences of our existing graduates to do this.
- The NGDP’s fantastic and committed BAME network coached around 40 people through the final stages of the recruitment for Cohort 22. For Cohort 23, we have piloted commissioning paid for expert coaching, which aims to support BAME graduates and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds to flourish throughout the recruitment process and have the best chance to showcase their abilities. Where graduates have not had family or friends go through similar processes, it can be daunting, and we want to unpick some of this inherent disadvantage. The initial feedback is already really positive. A more focused BAME mentoring programme is being piloted with The University of Brighton with a view to working more closely with our most diverse universities in future.
On the scheme
- We support our graduates to self-organise any networks they would like to and offer a budget to support their efforts; currently this includes a BAME network, a women’s network, a social mobility network, a Northern network, an All Ability Network and a queer network.
- The most established network is the NGDP BAME network, who recently held a public event for which 300 people registered and have been an active voice in improving our recruitment practices. The Chief Executive of Newham, Althea Loderick, is the sponsor for the network.
- We encourage the stating of pronouns in all our NGDP events.
- We work closely with our partner councils around issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion. We are putting more resource into our ‘local’ recruitment offer so employers can craft their recruitment around what local means to them, and which communities they wish to focus on; we provide resources to help them promote the scheme and then enable them to recruit local people who meet those criteria, giving graduate opportunities with the NGDP to local people.
- We have given greater focus with recent cohorts to the welfare and wellbeing of graduate trainees. For example, this year we put on wellbeing sessions hosted by an external facilitator, focused on mental wellness whilst working from home during the pandemic.
- For our most recent cohorts, we have improved the range of data we collect from candidates and made sure we have permission from them to use it for the purpose of improving the NGDP. We track the data of our candidates and cohorts against all the protected characteristics, as well against the key social mobility measures. We have formalised our processes for data collection and analysis, which will now be analysed independently by the LGA’s research team – they will create deeper insights, and highlight trends (e.g. in drop out, or disproportionate elimination) which we can respond to in real time.
- We are working on improving our evaluation activity, including making sure EDI data is be re-collected in later surveys to enable better journey tracking of our alumni.
The early signs that this work is having an impact seem positive. Particularly in terms of ethnic diversity, an area where the report made particular recommendations, our efforts are already showing impact. Where only a few years ago our graduate cohort was more like 10% BAME, now around a quarter of the trainees on our programme have identified as BAME.
We also find that more applicants feel able to disclose a disability year on year, and we are accommodating more special requirements. Those from the LGBTQ community are more represented on the scheme than in the wider population. Our recruitment process shows no adverse impact in terms of gender, though we continue to attract more women overall. We are attracting greater number of slightly older candidates (there is no upper age limit) and those with caring responsibilities, who see local government as an attractive and flexible place to work. We believe the now virtual nature of the programme, partly instigated by the pandemic, is also making the NGDP more accessible to those from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
This work is not without its challenges, so what have they been? The NGDP team are a group of fantastically committed individuals, ourselves from a diversity of backgrounds, absolutely driven by the shared ambition to make the NGDP the best it can be; a scheme that is open and inclusive for graduates from all backgrounds, and that plays a big part in making sure local authorities are representative of the communities they serve. However, we are often having to counter misperceptions about the programme, that diversity is something we are complacent, or simply haven’t thought, about. The opposite could not be more true. We spend more time working on diversity and inclusion than we do on any other issue on the NGDP.
Secondly, the language around diversity can often be euphemistic, or clouded by a level of unease. This can make it difficult for us to have open conversations with our partners. Often a conversation will be about ‘diversity’, when what the council really wants to talk about is race; we talk about ‘BAME’ graduates, but they may have a specific community within that in mind. Having a more open conversation about this could help us all work together more meaningfully.
With respect to the above, once we have our pool of candidates who have made it through our third and most intense stage of recruitment – assessment centres – we give candidates the chance to interact with the councils and other partners on board each year, and then make an informed choice about where they would like to work. We may take into account a local connection to a particular council (i.e. having grown up there, already being resident), but we do not allocate interviews in councils based on any demographic criteria, such as race. It is simply about balancing candidate preference against availability of interview places in partner organisations. We believe this creates the best possible chance of success; sending graduates to places they genuinely want to work. Like all candidates, BAME candidates will make their own choices based on what is important to them, but we do find that councils that can showcase the work they are doing around diversity and inclusion will tend to increase their popularity with these groups. However, this process can create tensions and is often quite hard to manage for the NGDP team.
Despite the challenges, the team remain committed, and entirely humble to the reality that there is more we can learn and there is always more we can do to improve. We welcome constructive conversations with anyone able to help us on this journey of continuous work and continuous improvement for the NGDP.