Skip to main content

Keeping better statistics

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Thursday 9 February 2017

As Commissioner for Public Appointments I know what I am regulating but not whom. This inhibits my newly enhanced role as champion of diversity since I have only a partial, and inaccurate, view of who serves on public bodies.

The what is pretty straightforward. Orders in Council, a form of legislative action approved and revised by the Privy Council, set out what bodies are regulated by my office. The list does not cover all public bodies or office holders appointed by ministers. As has frequently been commented upon, there is no straightforward list of public bodies and some, such as national museums and galleries, or organisations like Channel 4, are covered by separate statutory provisions. But the list of bodies regulated by the Commissioner is specific and covers a total of roughly 10,000 public appointments.

The who is less clearcut. There are roughly 2,000 new appointments and reappointments a year, the annual totals can vary 200 to 250 either way. My small office cannot be involved in all. Sir David Normington, my predecessor, simplified the process, distinguishing between high profile appointments– essentially the chairs of public bodies and public office holders such as regulators on the one hand, and members of bodies on the other. The Commissioner took a direct role in the selection of the former via Public Appointment Assessors who chaired the interview panels through these competitions. In recent years there have only between 50 and 80 chair competitions annually. The introduction of the new Cabinet Office Governance Code has narrowed the direct involvement of my office with the abolition of Public Appointment Assessors, though I am still closely monitoring the conduct of what are now called ‘significant appointments’ and, more generally, keep a close eye on competitions through a mixture of the Government’s new transparency regime, audit and the involvement of my officials.

My office has little direct involvement either in reappointments or in the appointment of members of public bodies unless there are problems or specific complaints. But the outcomes are monitored on a regular basis and reported on through the annual report and the annual statistical bulletin. We are entirely dependent on public bodies and departments themselves reporting about the background of who is appointed.

The current data is, however, patchy and inadequate. For instance, 307 of the 2,204 people appointed or reappointed in the 2015-16 financial year chose not to declare their gender or gave no answer; 571 similarly declined or failed to respond about their ethnic background; 955 did not do so about their disability status; and more than half, of 1334, did not declare information on political activity.

These flaws obviously limit the usefulness of the overall data. The failures to declare appear to be because candidates for posts do not fill in the diversity forms which accompany application forms. The non-declaration is disproportionately among bodies coming under the category of ‘Other’ in the statistical bulletin, with especially low returns from the Independent Monitoring Boards which monitor the welfare of prisoners.

But this problem can be addressed very easily and simply by departments insisting that for any application for a public appointment to be considered it must be accompanied by a diversity monitoring form. This should always include an option ‘prefer not to say’ in each category along with the assurance that the diversity form is purely for statistical purposes and plays no part in the assessment of applicants.

Fortunately, the returns for the main Advisory and Executive non-departmental public bodies and the NHS bodies are still generally high, at 90 to 95 per cent for gender and ethnic background. There is, however, a downside. If you take out the partial returns from ‘Other’ bodies, the performance of the main public bodies is less good. While more than 48 per cent of new appointments in 2015-16 were women, the figure was just over 41 per cent for Advisory bodies, 44 per cent for Executive bodies and 39 per cent for NHS bodies. This was still progress on the past but less impressive than the partial global totals. The NHS came highest on declared BAME background for new appointments– at 14 per cent, but Advisory and Executive bodies were still below the overall average of 10.4 per cent. The figures for reappointments were well down into single figures. The record on disability was more disappointing, both overall and on a longer-term basis.

Even where returns are high, these figures only tell part of the story. They just cover appointments and reappointments, that is the flow. They do not reveal what the overall position is on various boards, that is the stock. That is why I don’t know how many women, ethnic minorities or disabled people there are on public bodies. One of the first pieces of advice I received from my Scottish opposite number who handles appointments made by the Scottish Government, was to press for a full stock take as an essential starting point.

I am pleased that the Cabinet Office is committed, in principle, to such a stock take of public appointments, starting with gender. This was made clear at a recent roundtable on diversity which Chris Skidmore, the Minister for the Constitution, recently hosted. There are problems of classification since the list of organisations regulated by my office does not correspond to other lists of public bodies. But working towards a full stock take should be a priority since complete and accurate data aids transparency which was such a key feature of the Grimstone report last year and is essential to making progress on a diversity strategy.