A new report has shown the extent to which departments are failing to meet good practice guidance on the number of board meetings they should hold every year – with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury dragging their heels in particular.
The just-published annual report from government lead non-executive Sir Ian Cheshire shows that while more departmental board meetings were held in 2017-18 than the year before, several ministries are still falling short of the four-a-year target.
Departmental boards bring together non-executives, ministers and civil servants and are seen as a way to introduce private-sector expertise into government. The current model was introduced following the 2010 general election as part of then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s wider civil service reform.
According to Cheshire’s annual report, 2017-18 saw a total of 101 departmental board meetings held across 18 central government ministerial departments and three territorial offices.
The figure was a significant increase on the figure of 72 departmental board meetings spread across 17 departments the previous year. The Department for Exiting the European Union was excluded from that set of figures because it was in the process of recruiting non-execs during 2016-17.
Cheshire said the latest figures showed central government departments were holding an average of 5.5 board meetings a year, a figure that met the “required minimum of four meetings per department per year” set out in the Corporate Governance in Central Government Departments: Code of Good Practice document.
Cheshire warned in his previous report that “continued failure to meet [the] minimum standard would be a cause for concern”. However, he accepted that machinery of government changes in the wake of the EU referendum had been an “understandable” complication.
Cheshire’s 2016-2017 report had noted a “significant minority” of departments did not hold four departmental board meetings, but stated that the average for the year had been four. The code, however, does not refer to a pan-Whitehall average. It merely stated that board meetings sould be held "at least on a quarterly basis" but ideally "more frequently".
Eight departments missed this target in 2017-18, up from six in 2016-17. They were the Cabinet Office, which held one departmental board meeting according to the report; HM Treasury, which also held just one meeting; and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development, the Department for Health and Social Care, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Scotland Office – all of which held three meetings.
At the other end of the scale, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office held 10 departmental board meetings, the Department for Transport nine, and HMRC eight.
Elsewhere in his report, Cheshire, who is a former chief executive of retail group Kingfisher, said he was “concerned” about holes in the diversity data available on Whitehall’s non-executive directors.
He said that while 45% of non-execs were women – a figure not too far short of the 50% target for public appointees set for 2022, there was a lack of “good data” in relation to non-execs from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities or other protected characteristics.
“It should be a priority for the Cabinet Office to collect and monitor this going forwards,” he said.
“I remain concerned on this issue and will be seeking to ensure that secretaries of states, ministers, senior officials and lead non-executive board members continue to work to ensure that recruitment processes encourage candidates from a wide range of backgrounds.”
Civil service chief executive and Cabinet Office perm sec John Manzoni said in the report that non-execs provided “vital challenge and support” to government.
“Their expertise has improved the operation of departmental boards and helped to focus attention on our priorities for major projects and talent,” he said.
“Over this next period, as we move to EU exit implementation, our non-executives will play an important role by helping departments to prioritise across their delivery areas and to prepare for the upcoming Spending Review.”