More tweeting, please: government must up the profile of public appointments to help boost diversity

Ministers have reiterated the government’s support for plans to boost diversity in public appointments. But departments need to do more to make sure a wide variety of groups are aware of public appointments, says Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments


Photo: Photoshot

By Peter Riddell

27 Jun 2018

The civil service leadership regularly, and rightly, celebrates diversity and inclusion within its own ranks – via networking events, awards ceremonies, social media and Twitter – but it has so far given less prominence to diversity in public appointments. It is all rather low key, as shown by the lack of emphasis on diversity in public appointments in many of the recently published single departmental plans. This is curious since the government has an ambitious and credible Diversity Action Plan and a record which, while patchy in places, is better than in most of the private sector and in politics and the media. Permanent secretaries need to raise the public profile of appointments.

One of my roles as public appointments commissioner is to champion diversity. I have few levers since I don’t appoint anyone to the wide range of non-executive positions available on public bodies. That is the responsibility of ministers advised by interview panels who must run a fair and open competition in line with the government’s governance code. What I can do is to highlight best practice after discussions with departments, and to suggest ways of broadening the range of applications for appointments and removing actual and perceived barriers. And every year my office publishes data on appointments collected from departments.


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Thanks to a drive by ministers and departments in the first half of this decade, the number of women being appointed and reappointed to public bodies was more than 45% in 2016-17, with up-to-date data due later in the summer. This compares with 34% five years ago. The number of female chairs of these boards remains below 30% but there are signs of improvement. The picture is more mixed for ethnic minority candidates who account for around 9% of appointments and reappointments, compared with a 14% share of the adult population. In both cases, the figures are better than in both the private sector and in many other parts of the public sector.

The government’s Diversity Action Plan, launched in December by Chris Skidmore and endorsed in early June by Oliver Dowden, his successor in the Cabinet Office, commits the government to ensuring that 50% of appointments go to women by 2022, and 14% to ethnic minorities. There is no target for those declaring a disability. To address the barriers preventing disabled people taking up appointments, Dowden announced a review by Lord Holmes of Richmond. The Diversity Action Plan contains many sensible proposals to develop networks to raise awareness and to provide support, to work with chairs and boards on succession planning and to establish a group of mentors.

Yet this commitment is only partially reflected in the recently published Single Departmental Plans. The Cabinet Office has highlighted the 2022 objectives in its departmental plan and this is welcome. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is an exception in specifically referring to ensuring that appointments ‘to the boards of public bodies are representative of the diverse sectors and communities they serve’.

Elsewhere however, there is either silence or opaqueness and there are almost no references to public appointments, even in the plans of departments which make large number of appointments. The Ministry of Justice refers to a ‘diverse workforce’ and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to embedding systematically ‘diversity and inclusion across all major decision-making processes including recruitment’.

As I have seen directly at various outreach events, both these departments take their responsibilities to increasing diversity in public appointments seriously. From their permanent secretaries down, they are active in trying to broaden the range of candidates applying for public appointments. But the lack of prominence in most Single Departmental Plans reflects a generally low public profile for appointments. It may be that these are regarded as matters for ministers who make the appointments but it is civil servants who, in practice, have to make diversity commitments work.

To be effective, these efforts need to be more public – as they are with civil service recruitment and promotion. One of the key problems I have identified over the past two years from talking to a wide variety of groups – particularly those from ethnic minorities and disabled groups and less so now with women’s organisations – is a lack of awareness of public appointments, what they are and what applying involves. It is important to draw more public attention to the opportunities, to highlight those from target groups who are appointed and to have the type of events, and awards which the civil service leadership rightly does to celebrate diversity and inclusion. Some more tweeting, please, as part of a wider review of the role which social media can play in reaching a wider audience.

Public appointments matter – there are roughly 10,000 of them from the chairs of big national institutions such as the BBC and national museums and galleries to locally based members of NHS trust, Parole Boards and Independent Monitoring Boards (previously prison visitors). They all matter to the quality of public life and I am constantly impressed by the commitment of those who serve, often for no financial reward. Rightly, they should be more a reflection of the society we live in. It is more than time to raise their public profile.

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