Service delivery
May 7, 2012

Ontario’s IDEA: Inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible

By 2017, visible minorities will make up almost 29 percent of the Ontario population. Earlier this year, the Ontario Public Service approved Framework for Action: Diverse Ontario, a report it believes will be a crucial step in a journey to improving the diversity of its workforce and strengthen the public service. Noëlle Richardson, appointed Chief Diversity Officer in September 2008, spoke with CGE about her mandate.

What are the objectives of the diversity program?

The objectives of the diversity program are simple, but multiple. They are to create a diverse, inclusive and accessible Ontario Public Service that reflects the population of the province. By doing so the OPS can better anticipate and respond to the needs of the public it serves. As an organization that builds capacity in its employees, it will be well positioned to become the employer of choice.

Are you planning on setting targets?

It would be my preference to stay away from targets. They don’t seem to have been particularly effective in other jurisdictions. I think that for the most part targets represent a quick fix and not the sustainable transformation that we are after in the OPS. Having said that, I think we need to set goals and we need to be able to measure how well we are doing in achieving those goals.

What prompted the diversity framework at this point?

It was probably overdue. We have known for a long time that like almost every organization today, the OPS is facing a large exodus of people who are getting ready to retire over the next five to ten years. It will be in a “war for talent” like it’s never been before. In fact when you look at the numbers, it’s quite a scary situation. Any organization that is not taking that seriously, that is not looking at ways to maximize the contributions of its workforce and attract people to meet its business goals, is not doing due diligence on its own behalf.

Who did you learn from to get it right?

I don’t know that we necessarily have it right yet. This is a journey and so our diversity framework is not set in stone. When you are dealing with people, human nature and the human condition, how can it be? It’s a shifting platform. Having said that there was a great deal of research, looking at best practices for inclusion, nationally and internationally. We have adopted aspects of inclusive strategies from a number of sources.

How are you planning to change the culture of the OPS?

In many ways we are planning to do it one person at a time, through education and by making fair practice a part of everyday life in the OPS. We are examining our policies through what you might call a diversity lens, for impact over a broad spectrum of difference. Each deputy minister has a diversity commitment in their performance plan. I also sit on Deputy Ministers’ Council as well as the Executive Development Committee and I think this sends a very strong message about the seriousness of organizational change in the OPS. An important aspect of this is leadership commitment, and I have not seen the degree of commitment in my years of working in the field of diversity, as I have seen here in the OPS. Not only from Shelly Jamieson, the Secretary of the Cabinet, but from the deputy ministers as well. Shelly has made this a priority and that goes a long way toward achieving the desired results of a diverse and inclusive OPS. We have spent the last year building a strong foundation from which to drive long-term, sustainable organizational change going forward.

Diversity can apply to thought as well as to skin colour, race or sexual orientation. Do you have any mandate to promote diverse thinking and diverse approaches?

I’m glad that you asked that, because diversity isn’t just about race, gender, culture and sexual orientation, it’s about all of the ways in which we all differ. In fact one of the messages that I’ve been trumpeting is that diversity is an entity that we are all a part of and none of us is apart from. If you have a disparate group of people who don’t look alike, but who all think the same, one might argue that there isn’t the kind of diversity that we need today if we want to be innovative and adaptable, if we want to meet the needs of a changing environment. Having said that, if you do have people from different cultures and experiences and abilities and orientations, chances are, by virtue of that you will have the diversity of thought that comes from those different realities. So being inclusive across a broad demographic spectrum is a good place to start in achieving diversity of thought and perspectives. As corny as it sounds, we could say that “as necessity is the mother of invention, so too is diversity the mother of innovation.”

Are there systemic impediments?

It would be fairly safe to say that there are not only systemic impediments, but attitudinal ones as well. Those are evident simply by looking at the composition of the public service. I mean that in general the OPS has a great deal of diversity, but as you go up the ranks, that diversity dies away. It begs the question, why? What are the barriers that prevent us from seeing the diversity that exists below the manager level, from showing up over time in the senior levels of the OPS?

In many ways it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. How much of this is as a result of attitudinal barriers that feed into systemic barriers and vice versa. One of things that we must do when dealing with differences is shift some of the paradigms that have guided our behaviour. Many of those paradigms are no longer relevant.  We also need to broaden our cultural competencies so that when merit shows up differently than we are used to seeing, we understand how to assess that merit in order to access the necessary talent. I can’t stress enough that none of this change is going to happen overnight, it will take time. But with a vision that propels us forward toward that wished for ideal of an inclusive public service and commitment to change at all levels, we are well positioned for it to happen.

Do you have anything underway to develop that wider perspective?

Education, education, education…Our Centre for Leadership and Learning has launched education sessions, focusing right now on managers, with the plan to expand that to a wider number of recipients. As you can well imagine with over 67,000 people, educating the entire workforce will be a challenge, in particular when you are trying to do so in a timely way. But education comes in different ways. We have also launched a reciprocal mentorship program, where each deputy minister mentors a number of individuals from underrepresented groups within the OPS. The goal is learning on both sides. Eventually this program will be expanded to include assistant deputy ministers and directors and, therefore, widen the sphere of learning.

What made you decide to take on this challenge?

I think the opportunity to make a meaningful difference. But this is not only my challenge; it’s a challenge for all of us in the OPS. It’s by no means a one-person job. In many ways an Inclusive, Diverse, Equitable and Accessible OPS is an IDEA whose time has come.

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