On Thursday 30 November 2017, the Rt Hon Peter Riddell CBE (The Commissioner for Public Appointments) was invited to give a speech at the Cabinet Office’s Public Bodies Week conference, focusing on his role as a diversity champion.
The text below is a synopsis of his speech.
As Commissioner for Public Appointments, one of my main- indeed enhanced- roles is as a champion of diversity. My function is as a regulator, to monitor whether appointments observe the Government’s own Governance Code, to report annually on what has happened, as well as to hear and adjudicate on complaints.
So as diversity champion I have limited powers and it would be all too easy to make well-intentioned public pleas for more appointments of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled which might make me feel good, though I suspect, would rightly invite a cynical response from under-represented groups.
There is a danger of treating diversity as almost a statistical exercise– of course targets and goals have their place. But underpinning them is a belief that members of public bodies should come from a wide range of backgrounds and reflect the diversity of the UK population if they are to command public confidence and act in the public interest.
Not only is there plenty of evidence that more diverse boards are more responsive and perform better but there is a particular responsibility on arms length bodies since they are in the public sector often work directly with citizens. It is both desirable in its own terms and good business for these organisations properly to understand the public they serve.
It’s not as bad as many believe
The record not only on gender but also on ethnicity is not as bad as many believe and as some recent coverage has implied– thanks to the efforts of ministers and departments in recent years.
But there is still a long way to go, particularly in the appointment of chairs and for those declaring themselves as disabled. In the last financial year, just over 45 per cent of appointments and reappointments went to women, up from 34 per cent five years ago. The figure for new appointments is over 48 per cent, but only 28 per cent of chair positions went to women.
Women do better
Encouragingly, women who apply for a public appointment do better than men at each stage of the process so that 17 per cent of women who applied for a public appointment were successful, compared with 10 per cent of men.
But on ethnicity it’s mixed
The record on ethnicity is mixed, a rising trend but not good enough. In 2016-17, just over 9 per cent of appointments and reappointments were made to ethnic minority candidates, though more than 10 per cent of new appointments were made to BAME candidates. This compares with a 14 per cent share of the population according to the 2011 census. But only just over 5 per cent of chair appointments and reappointments went to ethnic minority applicants. Unlike women, ethnic minority candidates do less well relatively in making it to the interview and appointment stages.
Disabled applicants doing better
Among those declaring a disability, some 6 per cent were appointed or reappointed, the second highest level in the past five years. And of those disabled candidates who do get through to the interview stage over two-fifths are appointed. There are problems here of definition, of the willingness of people, particularly with mental health problems, to declare themselves disabled. I am concerned that these difficulties are not treated as an excuse. We need greater attention to ensure that more disabled people are appointed.
What are the obstacles to improvement?
- First is knowledge and understanding. Many people don’t know about the range of public appointments. They tend to think the posts are for the good and the great or friends of ministers. Countering that perception to demonstrate that appointments are made on a fair and equal basis on merit is vital. My key role is to make sure the process is fair and open, privately to advise, and, if necessary, to be willing to speak up where there are concerns.
- Second is that the process itself is off-putting, too complicated and designed to favour the already successful, notably middle aged white men.
A lot has already been done here to reduce the biases in the application system in favour of conventional experience. It is also important that appointing panels are themselves diverse. One or two women are now almost always on a interview panel, but ethnic minority and disabled members are much rarer.
Moreover, broad categories such as ethnic minorities or the disabled often conceal more than they reveal. For instance, the record of appointment of people from a South Asian background appears to be distinctly higher than those of Afro-Caribbean origins. The same applies in disability, as we become more aware of the number of people with varying mental as well as physical disabilities, often undeclared in the former case.
It is necessary to look at diversity in the broadest sense, covering social mobility and age, rather than just hitting targets and ticking boxes.
There is also need to pay attention to the geographic, social and age balance – not least because the relatively low or non-existent financial rewards for most posts are most attractive to those nearing or at retirement and/or with strong existing financial resources.
Overall, success against all measures will depend on sustained implementation by ministers and departments over the years. I intend to play my part by encouraging, sharing what works, scrutinising processes and reporting on progress- and speaking up publicly when necessary.
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