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Diversity in Public Appointments

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Wednesday 17 October 2018

The problem with discussing diversity in public appointments is whether to talk about a glass half full or half empty. I am acutely aware of this dilemma as one of my main responsibilities as Commissioner of Public Appointments is to champion diversity and the record is both better than in much of the private sector and still patchy and far from satisfactory.

Since I do not appoint anyone myself, my diversity responsibilities involve two roles: first, identifying and spreading good practice about how to achieve  diversity; and, second, collecting diversity data from departments and publishing it every year.

My view– based on many discussions over the past two years and as publicly stated when the Government produced its Diversity Action Plan last December- is that making progress on diversity requires a multiple approach:-

First, developing networks among under-represented groups, notably via social media, to let people know what public appointments are and to stress they are not just open for ‘the usual suspects’ a conventional metropolitan elite.

Second, departments need to collaborate more in developing talent pools and pipelines of potential candidates. More systematic mentoring and support schemes, as pioneered in Scotland and Northern Ireland, need to be encouraged to develop skills and confidence to serve on boards.

Third, departments need to re-examine their own procedures for considering applicants and for interviews, such as more diverse interview panels.

Fourth, successful candidates from target groups need to be highlighted as role models

Fifth, Permanent Secretaries need to promote opportunities in public appointments and publicly to encourage making appointments more diverse as they already do in championing diversity among civil servants.

There are important caveats about the data. Levels of declaration by candidates are often still too low. The data is anonymous and is not supplied to assessment panels in a way in which candidates’ protected characteristics can be identified. And for the 2017-18 reporting year, the June general election inevitably disrupted the pattern of competitions for a long period which reduced the number of new appointments over the year as a whole, thus affecting comparisons with earlier years. That said, we can identify some broad trends.

There is a clear positive side to the picture, as the  diversity figures are much better than in most of the private sector, especially for women. The number of appointments and reappointments made to women was 47.7 per cent in 2017-18, up from 45.5 per cent in the previous year and about 40 per cent only four years ago. Moreover, women do better than men at the shortlist and interview stages so that of all female applications nearly 10 per cent were appointed, against just 6.6 per cent of men. The number of chair appointments made to women rose from 28.8 to 43.5 per cent. But this was out of a reduced total of 46 chair appointments where gender was declared, down from 59, and there was a decline in chair reappointments, from 33.3 to 27.8 per cent, again from a reduced total of 36, against 63. So, overall, there were 30 chair appointments and reappointments made to women in 2017-18, down in absolute terms from the 38 of the previous year, but five percentage points higher at 36.6 per cent in relative terms from a much reduced total. The key will be what happens in a more normal year for competitions.

On current trends this makes the Government’s target of 50 per cent of appointments to women by 2022 look realistic attainable, and is, of course, much better than the much discussed performance on private sector boards. This reflects a combination of determination by ministers and departments over the last few years, identifying potential female candidates and action by various women’s groups and networks.

I do, however, have some concerns about the patchier picture elsewhere. The total number of appointments and reappointments to ethnic minority ( BAME) candidates slipped slightly in the last reporting year to 8.4 from 9.1 per cent ( though new appointments are near 10 per cent). The percentage of ethnic minority applicants has risen from 10.9 to 13.6 per cent, but there is, as in previous years, a decline in BAME candidates progressing through to the short-listing stage. The picture improves again at the interview stage where there is no significant difference with non-BAME candidates.

Just 6.7 per cent of new chair appointments declared a BAME background. These figures suggest a big new drive will be required to reach the Government’s target of 14 per cent of public appointees from ethnic minorities by 2022. More systemic support and leadership  may be needed for talented candidates to develop the skills needed for a boardroom role.

The picture for candidates declaring a disability is complicated by the third of candidates choosing not to declare or giving no answer. The proportion of those appointed or reappointed declaring a disability has risen over the past two years to 6.9 per cent from 4.1 per cent in 2015-16. But this is still disappointingly low and progress through the assessment and interview stages lags behind those not declaring a disability.

The Government has commissioned a review by Chris Holmes, Lord Holmes of Richmond, a distinguished former paralympian, to look at how the number of candidates declaring a disability can be increased. I strongly support his review and look forward to seeing the conclusions later this year.