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Mixed progress on diversity of public appointments – more attention is needed

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Thursday 17 October 2019

My annual report for 2018-19 is generally reassuring about the way that the public appointments system is working. There has been no great scandals or major complaints to my office and the record on appointing women and those from ethnic minorities is better than the private sector. But it is my view there remains a lot to do. The Code that governs appointments has been in force for well over two years now.

As Commissioner, I don’t appoint anyone. My role is to regulate, to hear complaints and to investigate where necessary, while overseeing the collection of data. My role also includes being an advocate for diversity. I’m passionate about ensuring public appointments – to bodies with much influence our everyday lives – are open and accessible to all. What I have found this year shows there is limited progress, but no room for complacency.

The record on diversity of public appointments for 2018-19, as almost every year, is patchy. The proportion of women being newly appointed is bringing us to within striking distance of the 50 per cent goal by 2022, though a so far unexplained drop in female reappointments has meant that the number of new appointments and reappointments has slipped slightly to 45 per cent. There has been an encouraging rise from 10 to 13 per cent in new appointments made to those from ethnic minorities.

“13% of new appointments in 2018-2019 were made to people from a BAME background, compared with 10% in 2017-2018.”

Just 6 per cent of new appointments were made to individuals declaring a disability, around the same level as in recent years. And even where there have been improvements in the diversity of board memberships, this has not translated into the appointment of chairs from under-represented groups. Fewer than 3 per cent of chair roles went to those from ethnic minorities and those declaring disabilities (in the latter case, even though the level of reappointments is higher, the overall totals are lower than five years ago). Just 31 per cent of appointed chairs of public bodies were women, despite the advances in numbers of non-executives at board level.

“This year’s data warns against complacency and shows how easily progress can be reversed.”

This needs to be a priority for departments and public bodies – taking forward initiatives like NHS Improvement’s Aspirant Chairs programme. This involves preparing board members from target groups for chair positions, though there has been limited impact so far.

If the Government is to achieve its aspirations on opening up appointments to the boards of public bodies to a wider range of applicants, there needs to be greater energy and leadership – as was shown when the number of female appointees rose sharply earlier in the decade. At present, for perhaps understandable reasons in view of the focus on Brexit and the associated political uncertainties, public appointments are not being given the attention they should receive. The Diversity Action plan for public appointments needs to focus minds urgently.

The report from Lord Holmes of Richmond in December 2018 on boosting the number of disabled candidates had several welcome suggestions which apply also to ethnic minorities and women – notably on mentoring schemes to encourage and support candidates. There are already some good initiatives from around the UK, such as Boardroom Apprentice in Northern Ireland, and by individual public bodies, such as the Disclosure and Barring Service. A Whitehall pilot scheme, involving my office, will be launched in the spring.

Underpinning such ideas is the need not to lose potentially good candidates who can easily be discouraged if they fail to get appointed at their first or second attempts. Subject to data protection safeguards, departments and the centre should co-operate more to share lists of such candidates for board positions who can be supported and alerted about opportunities.

There also remains the problem of the failure to complete the appointments process within the desired period of three months in more than half the competitions. The Lord Holmes review too found frustration amongst applicants, left without information or feeling that their needs were not taken seriously. Departments need to think carefully about how the process of applying is experienced by others.

But, as this year’s data shows, who these applicants are, is changing and challenging stereotypes about who public appointments are ‘for’. Contrary to widespread views, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of appointments and reappointments to Whitehall bodies last year were made to people living outside London and the south-east; nearly a half (44 per cent) went to people aged under 55; and almost three-quarters of new appointees did not hold an additional appointment. So much for the traditional mage of most appointees being male, metropolitan retirees with a portfolio of board memberships of public bodies.

“73% of new appointees did not hold an additional appointment.”

What isn’t helpful in challenging this stereotype is the issue of payment. Some public appointment roles are remunerated, others pay expenses, some nothing at all. There is no obvious rhyme or reason to this and I believe it warrants ministers’ attention. This is not about rewarding chairs and the like, but about recognising that many younger people, those who do not have full-time salaried jobs, or are from disadvantaged groups are discouraged from applying because of the potential loss of income if they take positions which either pay nothing or very little. How payments for roles interact with the benefits system was another concern raised by Lord Holmes. The financial disincentives matter much less for those nearing or after retirement age who already have sufficient financial resources. Time after time I have been told by promising, younger and ethnic minority candidates that money does matter.

Above all, these needed changes require leadership from both ministers and senior civil servants who recognise that their performance on diversity in public appointments will be scrutinised and challenged, and that the boards of public bodies need to reflect modern Britain.

October 2019