Friday 14 December 2018
A major challenge of being Commissioner for Public Appointments is the uneven quality of the data we are able to publish each year on diversity. It makes it much harder to suggest and monitor policies and initiatives when we do not know the attributes of those applying for, and receiving, public appointments. This problem has been rightly highlighted in the recent review by Lord Holmes of Richmond on opening up public appointments for disabled people.
Diversity data for applicants for public appointments is collected through a diversity monitoring form. This is often a separate document from the application form but sent out as part of the application pack. This diversity information returned by applicants is confidentially held and never shared with interview panels, so there is a guarantee of anonymity for all applicants. While the information is collated and aggregated totals published by my office (the Office for the Commissioner of Public Appointments- OCPA), the prime responsibility for collecting the information lies with departments which organise competitions.
The Holmes review highlighted a number of problems with the way in which diversity data is collected. First, application packs are inconsistent; the report identified of a dip sample of 20 packs, two included no diversity monitoring form, and three had a modified version of the OCPA form. Some encouraged applicants to complete the form, others did not. The review published by Lord Holmes stated that, as a result, we only know the disability status of 65% of existing appointees, for new appointees we only know over 78%. But this is not enough.
Completion of the form is not mandatory despite a specific provision of ‘prefer not to say’. Of all new appointments in 2017-18, 2.7 per cent of applicants who completed the monitoring form chose the ‘prefer not to say’ option when asked about their disability status, while 3.1 per cent did not respond to the question at all. 14.4 per cent of all applicants submitted no diversity monitoring form at all.
By contrast, in Scotland, the online application portal for public appointments mandates people to tick yes, no or ‘prefer not to say’ in order to proceed. Thanks to this, the disability data of 96 per cent of Scottish public appointees is known. That is why I continue to argue strongly in favour of making the completion of a diversity form mandatory in the application process. This still leaves open the option of ‘prefer not to say’ for this or any other diversity question.
Additionally, data are usually only requested at the time of application and, this can change during the course of an appointment or reappointment which can last for up to ten years. This means that we do not accurately capture the diversity of current appointees during the whole period of their service, and cannot therefore provide a realistic picture. Overall, the weaknesses in the data substantially affect the picture we have of public appointments and who fills the posts. The Cabinet Office has been working to improve the picture on stock; that is the composition of boards, as my office has on the flow, appointments and reappointments.
It is not just on disability that there is a high level of choosing not to declare or not giving an answer. That applies to 14 per cent of those appointed or reappointed answering the gender question; and nearly 24 per cent on ethnic backgrounds. There are also big gaps in the data on age, sexual orientation and significant political activity.
So, more needs to be done and the Scottish example, highlighted by the Holmes review, points the way forward.