Are greater diversity, participation, and inclusivity compatible with greater impact?

30 November 2022
SERIES Knowledge translation in the Global South: reflections on the future 10 items

Words have meaning beyond their definitions

The public sphere today is terminally fragmented. Gone are the days when the debate focused on what to do based on the facts of the day. Today we start the debate much earlier – on what the facts themselves are. Our media sources are diverse and cater for every possible opinion. In that regard, they are very much inclusive, but because of this media fragmentation, we have created societies within societies. 

I run Cast From Clay, a communications firm that–among other things–researches how policy experts can engage this new media landscape. Our latest research explores how in the US and the UK, there are at least two of these societies within societies. We refer to these as ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’. They are both characterised by mistrust of the other. And when they do come face-to-face, it’s often explosive.

Words like diversity, participation, and inclusivity can be the spark that sets off these confrontations. Not because of what the words mean but the meaning beyond the definition.

When we have more points of view, we can find common ground more easily

The arguments for diversity in public policy are straightforward. We encourage our clients, and the sector, to embrace more diverse workforces for the simple reason that unless you understand how a policy recommendation will affect the various communities within a society, you aren’t doing your job properly.

Anyone that has looked at the makeup of senior leadership in think tanks knows this is an issue. When I first researched this, I was surprised to see that this was even more of an issue among left-leaning think tanks, despite their protestations to raise the voices of the marginalised. 

A more inclusive sector means we are more likely to find common ground. We are often hired to help policy organisations reframe narratives to appeal to their ideological opponents. Yet while the stated aim may be to develop a shared understanding across such political divides, what we really want is to convince our opponents of the validity of our own worldview. 

Put another way: we want to convince our opponents that they are wrong – not exactly an inclusive starting point.

Consider how you frame things

If you take the political connotations out of diversity, participation, and inclusivity, few disagree with them. 

Every business owner knows how important it is to have different types of people in your company (diversity) – if everyone has the same way of doing things, you don’t progress very far. Similarly, every business owner knows that the best ideas often come from everyone except themselves, so having a culture that encourages others to speak up can drive growth (participation). Business owners also know that if they make people feel unwelcome, they are unlikely to stick around for long, and recruitment is expensive (inclusivity).

So, business owners care about diversity, participation, and inclusivity.

But if you ask them in a survey question whether they care about these concepts using those words, you’re going to get very divided responses. Your respondents are responding to the meaning beyond the concept. These words signify allegiance to a social narrative, and so when you use them, you are signifying your allegiance, and you are pushing away those who align with an alternative narrative.

Be wary of only talking to those that are like you

For policy organisations, diversity, participation, and inclusivity lead to more informed policy prescriptions and more effective communications. 

But if we want to really drive diversity, participation, and inclusivity forward, we need to recognise that these words often do the opposite of what we want. Finding ways to talk about why these concepts are important, without getting involved in conflict between narratives, is crucial.