Commissioner’s speech to Public Bodies Week conference

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Thursday 30 November 2017

The Commissioner was invited to give a speech at the Cabinet Office’s Public Bodies Week conference, focusing on his role as a diversity champion. The text of that speech is below.

As Commissioner for Public Appointments, one of my main- indeed enhanced- roles is as a champion of diversity. What does that mean? I don’t appoint anyone myself — that is done by, or on behalf, of ministers on the advice of panels chaired by civil servants alongside an independent member. My function is as a regulator, to monitor whether appointments observe the Government’s own Governance Code, to report annually on what has happened, as well as to hear and adjudicate on complaints. So as diversity champion I have limited powers and it would be all too easy to make well-intentioned public pleas for more appointments of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled which might make me feel good, though I suspect, would rightly invite a cynical response from under-represented groups.

What I have done since my appointment is to talk to such groups and to attend events to try better to understand their concerns, and throughout September and October to meet individual Permanent Secretaries across Whitehall to discuss the records of their departments and possible ways forward.

There is a danger of treating diversity as almost a statistical exercise– of course targets and goals have their place. But underpinning them is a belief that members of public bodies should come from a wide range of backgrounds and reflect the diversity of the UK population if they are to command public confidence and act in the public interest. Not only is there plenty of evidence that more diverse boards are more responsive and perform better but there is a particular responsibility on arms length bodies since they are in the public sector often work directly with citizens. It is both desirable in its own terms and good business for these organisations properly to understand the public they serve.

The record not only on gender but also on ethnicity is not as bad as many believe and as some recent coverage has implied– thanks to the efforts of ministers and departments in recent years. But there is still a long way to go, particularly in the appointment of chairs and for those declaring themselves as disabled. In the last financial year, just over 45 per cent of appointments and reappointments went to women, up from 34 per cent five years ago. The figure for new appointments is over 48 per cent, but only 28 per cent of chair positions went to women. Encouragingly, women who apply for a public appointment do better than men at each stage of the process so that 17 per cent of women who applied for a public appointment were successful, compared with 10 per cent of men.

The record on ethnicity is mixed, a rising trend but not good enough. In 2016-17, just over 9 per cent of appointments and reappointments were made to ethnic minority candidates, though more than 10 per cent of new appointments were made to BAME candidates. This compares with a 14 per cent share of the population according to the 2011 census. But only just over 5 per cent of chair appointments and reappointments went to ethnic minority applicants. Unlike women, ethnic minority candidates do less well relatively in making it to the interview and appointment stages.

Among those declaring a disability, some 6 per cent were appointed or reappointed, the second highest level in the past five years. And of those disabled candidates who do get through to the interview stage over two-fifths are appointed. There are problems here of definition, of the willingness of people, particularly with mental health problems, to declare themselves disabled. I am concerned that these difficulties are not treated as an excuse. We need greater attention to ensure that more disabled people are appointed.

What are the obstacles to improvement? First is knowledge and understanding. Many people, perfectly understandably, don’t know about the range of public appointments, or don’t believe it is for them. They tend to think the posts are for the good and the great or friends of ministers. With roughly 2,200 appointments or reappointments a year that is not true as a whole. However, countering that perception to demonstrate that appointments are made on a fair and equal basis on merit is vital and the rare appearance, or assertion, of cronyism can be disproportionately damaging. That is an argument both for robust regulation and for ministerial restraint, which still generally occurs. My key role here is to make sure the process is fair and open, privately to advise, and, if necessary, to be willing to speak up where there are concerns.

Second and related is the apprehension on the part of many under-represented groups that the appointments process itself is off-putting, too complicated and designed to favour the already successful, notably middle aged white men, A lot has already been done here to reduce the biases in the application system in favour of conventional experience. At present, apparently overly demanding people and job specifications can deter many people from applying who feel they do not stand a chance. Removing such lists- and simplifying language– can make a difference for those with less traditional career paths. It is also important that appointing panels are themselves diverse. One or two women are now almost always on a interview panel, but ethnic minority and disabled members are much rarer.

It is also misleading to imply that the system is monolithic. There is a huge variety of bodies– from national organisations like the BBC, museums and galleries, the key funding and regulatory bodies in health and education to the very local such as Independent Monitoring Boards which look after the welfare of prisoners and Parole Boards. Each requires different skills and commitments. Incidentally, over a half of appointments are by definition non-metropolitan since they cover prisons, parole and and local NHS trusts– though more can be done to spread recruitment to national bodies across the country. That is leaving aside the responsibility of the devolved governments and executives for appointments in their territories.

Moreover, broad categories such as ethnic minorities or the disabled often conceal more than they reveal. For instance, the record of appointment of people from a South Asian background appears to be distinctly higher than those of Afro-Caribbean origins. The same applies in disability, as we become more aware of the number of people with varying mental as well as physical disabilities, often undeclared in the former case. None of this is necessarily surprising but it argues against generalisations and for more nuanced solutions rather than just pursuing targets. It is necessary to look at diversity in the broadest sense, covering social mobility and age, rather than just hitting targets and ticking boxes.

My tour around Permanent Secretaries underlined these qualifications. First, there are big differences between four departments– DCMS, Health, Justice and Business- who make a big majority of appointments – and the rest. Some giants of Whitehall– the Treasury, the Foreign Office and Defence- make very few appointments. The latter generally have less capacity and experience in appointments, particularly in achieving greater diversity. Second, some departments operate in sectors which are dominated at the senior levels by white men, such as farming, fishing, construction and defence. There are also some areas where the pool of candidates for a specialist advisory committees is likely to be limited largely to white men.

There no simple solutions. I hope my meetings helped to focus the attention of some Permanent Secretaries on what for them has been a relatively low priority area. I was pleased to note the commitment to action on the part of most of the departments making a large number of appointments. Any longer-term solutions will involve sharing of best practice and mentoring promising candidates from under-represented groups, and sharing names between departments. This involves both identification of potential applicants and then supporting them through what may initially be a difficult and unsuccessful process. Advice and support are crucial on the lines of initiatives launched by the Scottish Government and NHS Improvement.

These remarks are essentially a background to the Government’s Diversity Action Plan which is due shortly. I am encouraged by the signs of commitment by ministers. An important theme will be to improve the quality of the statistics so that we know what is happening. I will be actively monitoring progress on the plan by departments and seeking to highlight best practice. I would hope that Permanent Secretaries show an equal drive and energy in securing greater diversity in public appointments as they already do in securing and celebrating greater diversity in the civil service itself.

The main focus at present is on gender, ethnic minorities and the disabled. There is also need to pay attention to the geographic, social and age balance– not least because the relatively low or non-existent financial rewards for most posts are most attractive to those nearing or at retirement and/or with strong existing financial resources.

Overall, success against all measures will depend on sustained implementation by ministers and departments over the years. I intend to play my part by encouraging, sharing what works, scrutinising processes and reporting on progress- and speaking up publicly when necessary.