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Was applying for a Race Equality Charter award a risk?

Published: 03/02/2016

Well, it depends how you define and manage risk, explains Dr Christine Nightingale

Christine-NightingaleRisk is one of those words which we often endow with negative connotations. When making a decision or setting up a project, first thoughts about risk often turn to what might happen if this goes wrong. For large organisations, leaders are understandably concerned about damage to finances, resources and reputation.

But risk is a neutral term. It should not be viewed as simply perceived threats, risk is also about opportunity too.

Whilst running a workshop on managing risk and reputation at a joint UUK and ECU equality conference at the end of last year, I was asked about the perceived level of risk for the university in publicly taking part in the pilot testing of ECU’s Race Equality Charter (REC).

Looking back now I would have to say that, when we originally applied to be a REC pilot university, I hadn’t immediately thought of negative or downside risk for the institution.

Rather I looked for the positive, upside risks, believing the Charter was an opportunity to understand data and policies through an externally provided lens. Personally, my excitement about our university being part of the Race Equality Charter was the chance to gather an interested and committed group of people together to find ways of enhancing policy and practice.

What I hadn’t taken into account, and what I think colleagues at the conference were referring to, was that the names of pilot universities were given a lot of publicity when the pilot Race Charter was launched. Ordinarily, named institutional applications or expressions of interest for charter type schemes and audits are not published. This publicity placed us much more in the public eye and raised expectations.

From my perspective the risks of applying for ECU’s Race Equality Charter were worth taking. I am not going to discuss risk assessment techniques. Rather to reflect briefly on what I have gained from addressing those positive and negative risks that we identified, and from celebrating unplanned positive outcomes.

One of the positive risks identified was the opportunity to capitalise on our pilot status, through advertising, to potential staff and students. A stunning piece of design work was used for an advert published in a national magazine during Black History Month. This design took on a life of its own, resulting in a separate and unplanned positive impact, attracting a great deal of notice and positive feedback.

Another positive and unplanned outcome was that we have, through creating a self-assessment process, gained a team who before 2014 had never worked together before, who now demonstrate ownership and a fierce commitment to continue the work they had started. This commitment I feel has been borne from very strong leadership, and from recognising that one risk we had to control on a weekly basis was losing capacity and running out of time. This was addressed at each and every meeting through rigorous project management.

It was, as I have written elsewhere an exacting and challenging process, one where every member of the self-assessment group was aware of the pressure to learn and work quickly together and through the leadership of the chair be transparent and honest with each other about the difficulties we faced.

My greatest learning, from engaging in the Race Equality Charter, on managing risk is to embed positive and negative risk identification into project management, and then deal with and exploit these systematically.

Dr Christine Nightingale is the Head of Equality and Diversity at De Montfort University, she is also the lead researcher and author of Academic teaching staff: developing equality and diversity skills, knowledge and values.