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The Prospects for Managing Diversity in the Public Sector: The Case of the Ontario Public Service

Canadian case study, September 2014

Operating in one of the world’s most diverse jurisdictions, the Ontario Public Service is committed to promoting diversity to create a workforce that reflects the region it services. So much so, that it has been recognised for six years as one of Canada’s top diversity employers. How has the Ontario Public Service approached diversity management? This Canadian study outlines three key factors behind its success.

Diversity in the public sector has become a fundamental focus in public sector reforms, with agencies seeking a workforce that better reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. This grew in prominence in 2009 when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recognised its importance to achieving political and social government objectives.

In 2008, the government of Ontario set out, as part of its public sector modernisation, to implement a diversity management program to reflect the province’s rich and diverse culture and population, with the ambition to be a modern and innovative leader.

With over 60,000 staff, the Ontario Public Service (OPS) is the second largest public sector employer in Canada and the first to implement a three year diversity plan. Over the years, public sector diversity has evolved from a focus on demographic diversity to creating an inclusive culture accommodating for all differences in the workforce – a key goal for the OPS. With this broader focus on diversity and inclusion, how has the OPS managed this?

A review was conducted by Professor Frank Ohemeng (University of Ottawa, Canada) and Professor Jocelyn McGrandle (Concordia University, Canada) on the Ontario Public Service to explore the prospects for managing diversity in the public sector, the challenges public sector organisations face and the opportunities for the future.

Ohemeng and McGrandle identified that successful diversity management is driven by a strong governance, change management and business integration.


The aim of the paper was to explore the challenges in implementing diversity and inclusion in the Ontario public service, along with the opportunities in creating a diverse workplace from business and social perspectives.


Ohemeng and McGrandle’s case study is based on interviews conducted with Ontario public service staff, where interviewees told their stories about diversity management, challenges and opportunities for moving forward.


The researchers’ perspective of the Ontario Public Service (OPS) is that it has progressed significantly towards becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation by implementing a number of leading policies and initiatives. The study identifies three key factors that appear to have supported successful diversity management within the Public Sector:

1.  A well-established diversity management program that has been supported by strong governance

2.  A focus on organisational culture change to guide behaviours and policies promoting inclusion

3.  Integration and measurement of the impact created by diversity initiatives to enable sustainability.

The review found that a good foundation for diversity management relies on strong governance to institutionalise diversity offerings. The authors considered the success of the OPS’ Diversity Office – the first of its kind when it was established in 2008 – to govern and oversee the development of diversity and inclusion programs, supported by a comprehensive three-year diversity strategy. The Diversity Office also appointed a Chief Diversity Officer with a seat on the Deputy Minister’s Council and its executive Development Committee to provide a diversity lens in senior decisions made within the OPS. Furthermore, the design of the Diversity Office enabled it to be a centre of excellence and expertise (CoE). However, organisations need to be aware of the challenge of CoEs creating an ‘ivory tower’ mentality between the CoE and business units – therefore, integration of diversity programs is essential.

Ohemeng & McGrandle argue that too often diversity management followed a top-down approach requiring leaders and managers to share the vision and expect changes to occur organically. The authors recommend diversity management move more towards an educational process, driven by leadership but supported by culture and change management to effectively harness buy-in from stakeholders. They assert that it is the change in the behaviours and policies of an organisation that accommodates diverse groups and builds a culture of inclusion.

In the case of the OPS, the Diversity Office designed several initiatives to promote diversity education and change behaviours. These included the OPS Diversity Mentoring Partnership Program and an online tool called ‘OPS Inclusion Lens’ designed to educate staff on diversity and inclusion by helping them identify potential barriers in policy, program development and service delivery.  Furthermore, the OPS recognised the need for enduring culture change and identified full-time diversity champions at the operational level to be change agents and break down silos.

Ohemeng & McGrandle observe that some critics view diversity management as affirmative action in disguise. Through the study, they suggest that the business case for diversity management is proven when line managers are able to deliver diversity initiatives as business as usual activities rather than as specialist activities directed from management.  The success of diversity management is achieved by integrating activities into key business activities to ensure sustainability. For public sector organisations, the researchers recommend diversity strategies to be nested in other key corporate initiatives and plans including HR business plans, whole-of-government values and behavioural expectations of public servants. For the OPS, this translated into diversity and inclusion values embedded in the Public Service of Ontario Act. The OPS also incorporated diversity management into performance management plans for deputy ministers. The researchers found this measurement approach is effective if performance plans are designed well.


From the review, the success of diversity management within the public sector is driven by a focus on fundamental management principles of strong governance and a focus on change management and business integration. The ‘OPS Inclusion Strategic Plan 2013-2016’ formally outlines the organisation’s success so far has been driven by:

1. Informed, committed and competent leadership

2. Behavioural and cultural change

3. Mainstream and integrate inclusion

4. Measurement, evaluation and reporting.

This approach to managing diversity can be applied across industry sectors to support a strong foundation for diversity and inclusion and build a case for diversity.

Going forward, the OPS’ strategy towards 2016 is focused on embedding inclusion in all levels of the organisation. Five goals have been designed to support inclusion:

1. Embed: inclusion into all policies, programs and services

2. Build: an accessible and healthy workplace

3. Reflect: the public they serve at all levels of the organisation

4. Level: the diversity of all staff

5. Respond: to the needs of a diverse Ontario population.

These goals demonstrate Ontario Public Service’s commitment to, not only make inclusion something that they do, but an important part of their organisational DNA.

To read the full article, see Ohemeng F.L.K., McGrandle J. (2014) “The Prospects for Managing Diversity in the Public Sector: The Case of the Ontario Public Service”, Public Organization Review. (Accepted) 

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