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Valuing Diversity

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Friday 21 June 2019

The strongest case for increasing diversity on the boards of public bodies comes from members of under-represented groups themselves. At present, there is an increased focus on those declaring disabilities as we await the Government’s response to last December’s report on the issue from Chris Holmes, a Conservative life peer and medal winning Paralympian in swimming.

I recently talked to two people – Carly Jones, who serves on a Government affiliated body and is a champion for those with autism; and to Matthew Campbell-Hill, who is a non-executive member of the board of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, about their personal experiences of board appointments. 

The most telling point both made is how what they have experienced through their disabilities enables them to bring more insights to the bodies on which they have served. Carly says her autism means that every day she has to think ahead to find solutions and take decisions, making her a highly strategic planner. Similarly, Matthew points out that in handling his physical and mental challenges he had  to negotiate with large multi-disciplinary teams about the bigger picture, a skill that he now puts into practice on a departmental board. These experiences have enabled them to offer highly sought after skills and function better on boards. Matthew notes that the practical issues he has faced in sports and museums have enabled him to contribute more.

That broader life experience, as well as technical and specialist skills, is often more than just a quota or numbers based representational argument in justifying increased representation of not only disabled people but also those from BAME backgrounds and women. The point I have appreciated increasingly as Commissioner is that more diverse boards – with more women, BAME, disabled, and socially and geographically mixed – perform better in reflecting the lives of the public they are supposed to serve.

Both Carly and Matthew stress the need for departments and public bodies to encourage applications from a wider audience, by examining the way  vacancies are advertised and in assisting in the interview process by making information more accessible. Also for departments to take a more open mind about less-traditional career paths of people with disabilities. Carly praises the public appointments website for the clarity it gives about the expected timeline, enabling someone with autism to plan ahead.

Both strongly support mentoring and support schemes. Carly notes the problem – faced by all under-represented groups – of people who miss out on appointments because it is not right for them now, though they might be right in a few years’ time. Appropriate mentoring can help them see how public bodies work and help develop confidence and skills for future applications.

The problem is managing expectations so that applicants are realistic about areas in which they may need to develop; and  for departments, public bodies and others to provide opportunities to level the playing field.  I have seen a number of schemes which offer promising mentoring initiatives bridging the charitable and public sectors, particularly in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The key – and most positive feature of the videos – is how broader life experience that people with disabilities and other under-represented groups can be a rich source of potential for the boards of public bodies.