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Public bodies are leading the way

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Thursday 26 November 2020

Public bodies are leading the way. For the first time, women account for more than half, 51 per cent, of all new public appointments and reappointments, and ethnic minorities over 15 per cent, in both cases ahead of the Government’s targets on overall appointees in post. These figures are also well above what has been achieved in the rest of the public sector, let alone the private or voluntary sectors. 


This is all good news but there are caveats.  There was a fall in the number of appointments and reappointments in the last reporting year of 2019-20, reflecting the disruption to decision making caused by the political and ministerial changes and the general election, even before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the late winter. The published data reflects the flow of new appointments and reappointments, not the stock of those serving on public body boards. 


And there has been no apparent progress in appointments for those declaring disabilities, still stuck at 6  to 7 per cent, while there is still a long way to go in achieving greater diversity of all kinds in the appointment of chairs of the boards of arms length public bodies.


That underlines the need for a renewed lead from ministers behind the existing goals and policies of the Cabinet Office’s Diversity Action Plan, notably to strengthen links to underrepresented groups (socially and geographically, as well the statutorily defined protected characteristics), to carry on making the appointments process more open, and, crucially, to expand development and mentoring schemes for potential appointees and future chairs.


First, the good news. Women accounted for 53.9 percent of new appointments and, taking account of reappointments, 51.4 percent of the total in 2019-20. This compares with 34.7 percent a decade ago. The sustained increase reflects various factors: long-term social changes encouraging women to play a more active part in public life, the impact of networking, and, crucially, the leadership from the centre in the 2010-15 period shown by Lord Maude and his team, backed by the continuing subsequent commitment of other ministers and departments, as well as the chairs of public bodies. What is significant, and encouraging, is that when tracking women across a competition, they consistently outperform during the appointments process – accounting for just short of 40 percent of applicants, but almost 48 percent of those short-listed and over 50 percent of those appointed. In short, high quality women candidates are coming forward and getting appointed. As I have found during my time as Public Appointments Commissioner, there are some outstanding female chairs of public bodies – though not enough at only around a third of new Chairs in 2019-20.


Over the last few years, departments have put a lot of effort into reaching out to ethnic minority groups – in themselves of very diverse backgrounds – and encouraging people to apply. This appears to be achieving some success with 14.4 per cent of new member appointees declaring themselves as being from an ethnic minority. Taking account of reappointments too, the overall figure for members is 16 per cent, and 15.3 per cent taking account of chairs, compared with less than 8 per cent only five years ago. In contrast with women, slightly fewer ethnic minority candidates make it through at each stage than others. Moreover, ethnic minorities account for just over 5 percent of newly appointed chairs, and fewer than 5 percent when taking into account reappointed chairs. Progress in the overall number of ethnic minority members joining public body boards is obviously welcome but the overall figures do not reveal what I suspect are big differences in levels of appointment between people of different ethnic backgrounds, so there is still much to be done.  


The disappointing news is about the lack of progress in appointing people declaring disabilities. There are problems in interpreting the data in view of the choice of some candidates to not declare their status at all, as well as wide differences in the nature of disabilities. It is good to see that the proportion of reappointees who have declared disabilities is up on last year. But there is clearly a need to return to the excellent analysis and recommendations in the review carried out two years ago by Lord Holmes of Richmond, with the overall proportion of appointees and reappointees with disabilities stuck at less than 7 per cent for the last five years.  I know from my own meetings how big a contribution that people with disabilities can make to public bodies from their own lived experiences. This pool of talent should not be neglected. 

There are still other imbalances which have shown little movement in my time as Commissioner. The proportion of newly appointed members aged under 55 has dropped slightly from last year (just under 50 per cent). While nearly two thirds of newly appointed members of boards live outside London and the south-east, fewer than two-fifths of the new chairs appointed in 2019-20 live outside these regions. North-eastern England is particularly poorly represented – a regional imbalance which the Government is seeking to redress in its leveling-up programme. The use of remote rather than face-to-face meetings during the pandemic may help to achieve greater diversity since people no longer have to travel long distances to attend boards, while the format can be an equaliser, putting all participants on the same footing. This has the potential to be particularly helpful for those with disabilities. 


The overall message on diversity is the most positive I have been able to report in my time as Commissioner but I am far from complacent. Public appointees have begun to look more like the population they serve, but significant gaps remain – and a strong central lead will be needed to make further progress.