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Diversity in Public Appointments

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Public appointments have largely been ignored in all the recent discussion of racial inequalities in Britain. Yet for all the understandable concern about the disadvantages and low representation of certain groups, the record is becoming more positive for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic ( BAME) candidates- though there is still some way to go to make the boards of public bodies representative of the people they serve.

The considerable progress made in recent years in the selection of women candidates to the roughly 2,000 appointments to public bodies ( now 45.5 per cent of the total) has only been partially matched amongst BAME candidates. In the last published figures, for 2016-17, just over 9 per cent of appointments and reappointments went to BAME candidates, against their 14 per cent share of the overall population in England and Wales. And 10 per cent of new appointments went to BAME candidates, better but not good enough. Moreover, just seven of the 136 appointments and reappointments of chairs were made to BAME applications, slightly more than 5 per cent of the total.

Moreover, in contrast with women, and non-white candidates, there is a measurable lack of success among BAME applicants making it to the interview and appointments stages. This creates a clear risk of disillusionment with the process and with often repeated public commitments to diversity unless real progress can be demonstrated here. From my meetings both across Whitehall and with BAME individuals and groups, I have sought to identify what precisely are the obstacles to making more progress. There is a lack of knowledge about opportunities and, in part, a lack of confidence- even though, from personal observation, there is no shortage of suitably qualified BAME candidates for many public appointments. First, there are clearly problems of information, not knowing what public appointments involve and how to apply. Much can be achieved by events targeted at BAME groups which a number of departments have successfully organised to explain the public appointments scene. Yet, second, there is a crucial need for follow-up. Potential BAME candidates need to be identified, encouraged and advised via the type of mentoring and shadowing schemes which NHS Improvement has successfully pioneered. This means supporting candidates who might be unsuccessful in one application so as to ensure they are not discouraged from applying on other occasions.

One challenge is the decentralised nature of Whitehall’s public appointments teams within departments. While there is important co-ordination from the centre via the Cabinet Office’s Centre for Public Appointments, and involvement from 10 Downing Street, most of the work is done in departments which differ considerably in the number and type of appointments they make. Some, such as the Treasury, the Foreign Office, and Defence, make relatively few public appointments and generally have few contacts with BAME groups. There is a strong case for more coordination, and more sharing of effective practice, networks of contacts and databases where possible. It is also apparent that the overall category BAME can be misleading since there are big differences between various ethnic groups in their success in obtaining appointments–higher for those with Indian and Pakistani backgrounds than for those with Bangladeshi and Afro-Caribbean origins. Much of this may be linked to economic and social differences, as also occurs among white candidates. We do not have data on social backgrounds but it is likely that the majority of candidates for board positions are middle class.

Public appointments as a whole are, however, less London and south-eastern centred than might be assumed- even leaving aside that the devolved administrations in Scotland,Northern Ireland and Wales make many appointments in their jurisdictions. Within England and Wales, many bodies are locally focussed, such as the Independent Monitoring Boards (looking after prisoners’ welfare), Parole Boards and local NHS trusts. Together they account for well over a half of all public appointments.

Overall, while involvement of BAME and disabled people is still too low, the picture of public appointments is already more diverse than the caricature of the ‘great and the good’ implies. Of course, some posts, especially on high profile public bodies, go to the already well-known and successful but far from all- and there remain a wide range of opportunities for people of all backgrounds should they wish to apply.