Departments should insist on making applicants for top public sector jobs fill out diversity monitoring forms, the Commissioner for Public Appointments (CPA) Peter Riddell has said, as he criticised the “patchy and inadequate” data currently available to his watchdog.
The CPA is responsible for ensuring that ministers do not appoint people to key posts in public bodies – such as regulators, some NHS trusts, inspectorates and art galleries – without following due process.
Under a new governance code published last December in response to the Grimstone Review of public appointments, the role of the CPA is now focussed on monitoring, rather than being directly connected to appointment competitions.
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Previously, the CPA appointed independent auditors to check whether departments were making appointments in line with the principles of merit, openness and fairness.
Now, rather than appointing auditors, the CPA can conduct “spot checks or respond to any concerns raised about a public appointments process" – a change that Riddell said meant he was "entirely dependent on public bodies and departments themselves reporting about the background of who is appointed".
In a post on the CPA’s website, Riddell noted that improving diversity data would be vital in his new role, and welcomed a commitment made by Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore to carry out a “stock take” of diversity in public boards, starting with gender.
Riddell said that “working towards a full stock take should be a priority since complete and accurate data aids transparency", pointing out that opening up the public appointments process was a "a key feature of the Grimstone report last year and is essential to making progress on a diversity strategy".
But he urged departments and public bodies to ensure that candidates fill in diversity monitoring forms when applying for board-level roles, as he revealed that nearly half of those appointed to public boards at present do not declare their disability status, while nearly a third do not declare their ethnic background.
Of 2,204 people appointed or reappointed in the 2015-16 financial year, 307 chose not chose not to declare their gender or gave no answer; 571 did not declare their ethnic background; 955 chose not to declare their disability status; and more than half, 1334, did not disclose information on political activity.
Riddell called on departments to insist that applications for public appointments will only be considered if they are accompanied by a diversity monitoring form.
He said: “This should always include an option ‘prefer not to say’ in each category along with the assurance that the diversity form is purely for statistical purposes and plays no part in the assessment of applicants.”
The proportion of completed monitoring forms is lowest among bodies classified as “other” – particularly Independent Prison Monitoring Boards – while NHS trusts are among the best at compiling diversity data about appointments.
However even where there is good data on appointments, Riddell says, data on existing board members is still poor.
“That is why I don’t know how many women, ethnic minorities or disabled people there are on public bodies,” he says, and it is for this reason that he called for a full stock take on diversity.