Data and Diversity in Public Appointments

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Tuesday 10 December 2019

The understanding of the importance of diversity on the boards of public bodies has grown increasingly in recent years. Public bodies make decisions that impact upon all of us and it is crucial that the individuals making those decisions are reflective of the society they serve. Decisions are more effective when they are led by a variety of perspectives and lived experience.

There has been noticeable progress in improving the gender diversity of public appointees, with 48% of new appointments being made to women in 2018/19.  Increases were also seen in the proportion of appointments made to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) applicants, with 13% of new appointments sitting as the highest proportion on record. Ensuring that this progress is continued in future years is a major challenge for public appointments teams in all departments. The record of disability and public appointments remained disappointing, with just 6% of new appointments being made to individuals declaring a disability. A review into opening up public appointments to people with disability was commissioned and published last year.

The need for greater diversity in public appointments is reflected in the Cabinet Office Diversity Action Plan, published in the summer. One of the major focuses of the plan is on improving the quality of diversity data that is collected from applicants to public appointments and existing appointees who are being reappointed. Without robust data, it is difficult to accurately measure the current levels of diversity in public appointments or to determine where progress is being made and where more work is needed. Diversity data is collected via a diversity monitoring form, which asks individuals to confirm their gender, ethnicity, disability status and other characterstics such as age and where they live.

There is an irony in a form intended to request an individual’s diversity information, including their disability status, not being accessible to individuals who may have a disability. In order to gather as much information as possible, it is essential that the form can be completed by as many people as possible. The Commissioner’s office and the Cabinet Office Public Appointments Policy Team have been working together to improve the accessibility of the diversity monitoring form, in order to enable users of assistive technology to complete the form independently.

The first part of this work was to understand the accessibility issues caused by the previous monitoring form. We were able to gain invaluable insight and advice from the Thomas Pocklington Trust, a charity for people with sight loss. After discussions with some of their staff, who use and rely on assistive technology everyday, we decided that we needed to move away from a Word based document. Instead, we have worked with an accessibility expert to produce an accessible PDF form, and developed two online versions using the Microsoft Forms and Google Forms platforms. The feedback received in testing these forms suggests that they are fully accessible to users of screen readers and magnifiers and will dramatically reduce the amount of time and effort needed to complete them.

There is a separate challenge in collecting robust data; the perception that people have of how it will be used and in some cases,how it might affect an application. In public appointments, individual diversity data is kept separate from assessment panels and this is made clear to applicants from the outset, but we have now developed additional wording to try to help ease any concerns and also to highlight the importance of diversity data as part of the push to improve diversity more generally.

The final change that we have made is to the question around disability itself. A two stage question, in which individuals are asked if they have a disability, and the extent to which it impacts their daily lives is now being used. This format matches that used by the Office of National Statistics, and should provide a data set which is more comparable to other studies and research. Additionally, further guidance on what constitutes a disability is available to candidates, following feedback from several disability groups that it is common for individuals not to perceive themselves as having a disability, despite being covered by the official definition.

These revised forms, which will be in use for all public appointments processes going forward, are just part of the ongoing work to improve the diversity on the boards of public bodies, and it is hoped that they will contribute to a better understanding of where we currently are and where we need to get to.

January 2020