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Make public appointments more diverse

Public boards do not reflect the make-up of wider society but progress is being made

By Susanna Smith  

A street sign for Downing Street and Whitehall, Westminster, central London. Picture dated: Friday April 28, 2017. Photo credit should read: Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment.

Thousands of board members are appointed to public bodies every year. These range from organisations like the Student Loans Company and Environment Agency to lesser-known ones like the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Most are ministerial appointments, although some individuals are chosen directly by the Queen or prime minister, and a handful, such as appointments to the Office for Budget Responsibility and Electoral Commission, require parliamentary approval. How these organisations are governed has significant impact on citizens’ daily lives, but the most recent public appointments data shows that the diversity of board members is a long-way off mirroring the social make-up of the population. This makes it harder for public bodies to take into account the needs of people from all walks of life when making governance decisions.

The government’s Diversity Action Plan sets the ambitious target that by 2022, representation of women and ethnic minorities will be brought in line with the rest of the population. The government has already made steady improvements in the number of women on boards. The figure, at 46 per cent, is edging closer to the roughly 50 per cent balance of the population, a gradual increase of 10 per cent over the past decade or so. But the fact that the 50 per cent gender target was first set in 2013 and still hasn’t been met raises questions over the pace of change. Every public appointments annual report for the past 10 years has reinforced the commitment to improve the number of appointments from all walks of life but the record of appointing individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds and with disabilities sit at a mere 10 per cent and 6 per cent, when 14 per cent of the British public are from an ethnic minority background and 18 per cent have a declared disability.

Why does this matter? There are three reasons. Boards that have a wide range of experience are better able to understand their service-users or the needs of those they regulate. It’s a tool to improve social mobility and, as research by McKinsey shows, more diverse organisations are significantly more likely to have stronger financial returns, which is not a small point for the public bodies that have to generate some of their own revenue. So, who is to blame for the slow progress and whose responsibility it is to bring about change? We can’t finger-point at a single government as the data is relatively stagnant across the Labour, Coalition and Conservative administrations, but clearly there needs to be some fundamental changes to the appointments system.

The current Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, is working hard to encourage change and share best practice across government, but his position is only advisory. Therefore, the onus is on ministers and their departments to bring about change.

Certainly, a lot has already been done to reduce the biases in the application system in favour of conventional experience, including creating more diverse independent panels, revising job specifications to favour skills and attributes rather than sector experience, and altering the sifting process. The government has also announced its intention to set up a group of mentors to provide support for potential candidates, form a network of “Ministerial Diversity Champions” and create an Inclusive Boards Charter, which will set standards to meet and guidelines for chairs of public bodies to follow when appointing board members. The government has also set a welcome three-month time limit to tackle the slow process for appointments that has been deterring applicants.

Yet, as the data shows, progress is too slow, and the government will need to think radically differently if it wants to attract diverse talent. Positively, the government has recently launched a review, led by Chris Holmes, who will be making recommendations to improve the application process for disabled people, but this is just one target group. There needs to be a much more strategic approach across all departments to encourage a diverse range of applicants.

It is not enough to advertise positions on the public appointments website. Recruitment needs to be much more adventurous, particularly in the use of social media, building networks with target groups and mentoring “rising stars.” Low remuneration of posts is a key issue for attracting individuals other than retirees. In 2016-17, 63 per cent of appointees were over 56 years old, which is actually higher than it was six years previously when it was 58 per cent. Perhaps as we supposedly come out of the “age of austerity,” the government can begin to offer higher pay to young, promising talents, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to take on the role.

The public appointments data for 2017-18 is due to be published in the coming weeks. While it’s good news improvements have been made, there are other aspects of diversity, such as sexual orientation and socio-economic and regional balance of appointees’ backgrounds that are yet to be addressed. Public boards are far from being truly reflective of society, but at least we’re taking about it and are on the right track.

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