Combatting racism and discrimination in the public sector

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Combatting racism and discrimination in the public sector Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

The public sector generally has a better reputation when it comes to diversity compared to other employers. Data shows, for example, that they tend to employ more women, and pay them better, than the private sector. The idea that the public sector discriminates less is based on both formal factors (for example rules requiring open and transparent recruitment processes) and informal factors (for example through values and traditions). 

However, just being better than the private sector is not enough. As long as the public sector discriminates at all, action is needed.  First, I’ll focus on discrimination in public service delivery, and afterwards on discrimination in the public sector itself.

It is important to emphasize that the studies mentioned don’t focus on fringe individuals holding extreme views, but on mainstream views held by a majority of people. Most of the studies also take place in high-income countries, where meritocratic cultures and anti-discrimination regulations are often more developed. In fragile, conflict and violence (FCV) affected contexts, the effects of discrimination can be amplified even more, since internal conflicts can be based on ethnic, racial or religious lines. This makes the topic only more relevant for development practitioners. 

The V-Dem indicators (measuring, inter alia, exclusion by gender, social group, political group and socio-economic group) are a good starting point to see which public sectors are most at risk of showing discriminatory behavior. 

Discrimination in public service delivery

Education is on sub-field where discrimination has a significant impact on public service outcomes. One study found that students with names native to the country of the study scored 10% higher on tests, then when the names of the students were redacted. Implicit biases among teachers have shown to lead to significant differences in teaching methods. 

Research on ‘medical racism’, has shown convincingly that implicit racial biases among doctors and nurses lead to unequal health outcomes.  Beyond that, many medical professional hold false beliefs about medical and biological differences between races. Half of a sample in one study falsely believed that black patients had a higher pain tolerance, leading to different treatments. 

Racial and ethnic minorities endure discrimination in interacting with the civil service as well. It is more difficult for minorities, for example, to request information on how to register to vote. And a study on information requests on how to receive unemployment benefits, found that the quality of information provided was of significantly lower quality for ethnic minorities. Finally, it has been shown that ethnic minority clients in unemployment agencies will be punished more often for policy infractions than ethnic majority clients.

Discrimination in employment in the public sector

Hiring people from all backgrounds, races and ethnicities into the public sector has a host of positive effects.  Guul, Villadsen and Wulff sum this up nicely: “minority representation [is associated with] more equal outcomes through a more inclusive work climate (Andrews and Ashworth 2015), less misconduct by street-level bureaucrats (Hong 2017), higher willingness to coproduce (Riccucci, Van Ryzin, and Li 2016), and, in general, better citizen outcomes (Guul 2018).” The study by Guul, Villadsen and Wullf is clear in its findings: applicants with non-native names received significantly less call back, especially from lower performing organizations. To be clear, however, none of these perks should be the main reason to diminish discrimination in public sector hiring. Diminishing discrimination should be reason enough. 

How can we move forward towards a more equitable public sector?

When engaging in public sector, civil service and service delivery reform, there needs to be an understanding that just because the public sector generally has less discrimination, they can still perpetrate practices that lead to discriminatory outcomes. These outcomes divide the quality, quantity and accessibility of services and justice along many lines, including race and ethnicity. When proposing solutions, these questions need to be considered: what can we propose, that can reduce discriminatory outcomes? Some of these might be:

  • Consider using affirmative action to address wealth, inequality and opportunity gap.
  • Introducing blind test examinations in schools and civil service recruitment exams, to diminish bias in grading.
  • Racial bias education in medical school and continuous learning efforts for doctors.
  • Making the first few rounds in applying for government jobs anonymous.
  • Advocating for AI and computer-based analysis of citizen applications (for jobs, benefits, information, etc.), with the knowledge that even algorithms can have discrimination baked into their coding.

None of these will solve the problem completely, and proposing them will include awkward or tense conversations but doing nothing is not an option. Integrity is a critical pillar of the World Bank’s core values. We want to reiterate that racial discrimination and social injustice have no place in any of our workplaces or societies.

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