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The power of mentoring

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Friday 11 December 2020

All public bodies have faced unexpected and demanding new challenges in 2020, coping with the direct impact of Covid and  finding new ways of working. But the pandemic has also sharpened longstanding arguments about the importance of diversity and representation in all walks of public life. Speaking to members of the Public Chairs Forum and to members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee recently, it is clear that the impetus for change has never been stronger.  

I am delighted that after much delay, largely due to the pandemic, my office, the Cabinet Office and the Public Chairs Forum have launched a public appointments mentoring initiative to link current leaders of public bodies with potential new members.

In June 2019 the UK Government made commitments to open up public appointments to a wider range of people, from all walks of life across the country, in its Diversity Action Plan. This followed on from Lord Holmes’ Review into increasing appointments for those with disabilities, published in December 2018.

My office published the latest diversity statistics for public appointments in my annual report two weeks ago. This revealed  a record-breaking proportion of appointments to women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. But progress in appointments to those with disabilities has stalled, and last week Lord Holmes’ published his review into the progress Government has made in fulfilling their commitments. His conclusion is that there is still a long way to go.

One commitment that is being fulfilled is the mentoring scheme, aiming to help open up public appointments to a wider range of people. Simultaneously, it will benefit chairs and their boards by helping them to gain new perspectives from people with different life experiences. I have seen the impact of these types of schemes – in Northern Ireland, and across the NHS – and am excited to see what can be achieved now. 

We have brought 15 mentors and mentees together for this 12 month programme. The mentees have come from ‘near miss’ candidates in public appointment competitions – those from under-represenented groups whom departments feel may benefit from a scheme to help build their confidence and skills. The Public Chairs Forum (PCF) has identified 15 chairs of public bodies – everything from the Office for Nuclear Regulation to the Parole Board – who have committed to giving their time and experience to support their mentee one on one. We have matched mentors and mentees based on statements they provided setting out what they would like to get out of the scheme and their career aspirations. PCF members will also run a series of masterclasses for our mentees, with dedicated training on the common skills that boards are looking for, such as stakeholder engagement and financial management. 

At the launch, I was inspired by the mentees who have such varied backgrounds and skills but share a common goal to serve the public. I would particularly like to thank Glenn Houston and Stanton LaFoucade from the Disclosure and Barring Service, who shared their experiences from the DBS’ own Boardroom Apprentice Scheme, run so successfully in association with Black on Boards, and championed by the DBS’ Chair, Dr Gillan Fairfield. Stanton’s wise words to our new mentees, having been in their shoes, demonstrated not only how powerful the mentee-mentor relationship can be, but also how much mentees gain from learning from each other. Glenn shared his views, as the Vice Chair of the DBS with extensive board experience of his own, about how valuable diversity and inclusion is to improved public service. 

My office will be keeping in touch with the mentees and mentors over the course of the programme, and I look forward to seeing the results when the Cabinet Office, PCF and ourselves carry out an evaluation of the pilot in 12 month’ time. I would like to thank PCF members in particular, for dedicating their own time and for committing their respective public bodies to taking part and helping us to break new ground. I am confident that the public bodies involved, and the 15 talented mentees, will demonstrate the mutual benefits of  mentoring, helping nurture talent and build more diverse boards. The impact will, I hope and believe, will be seen not just over the coming 12 months but over a longer period thereafter as they themselves become involved with public bodies.