Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report

Chapter 3: Building a new civic tradition: more diversity and better access

111. We have examined some possible remedies for the weaknesses of the appointed state. But our inquiry has also explored concrete proposals to increase participation in public bodies. As we have said, it should be a high priority of government to involve as wide a range of people as possible in the decisions that affect them.

112. The concept of the active citizen is not new. There has long been popular involvement in charitable societies, self-help groups, trade unions and trade associations, and campaigning groups of all kinds. The millions of people involved in such voluntary groups embody an active civic tradition that shows no evident sign of diminishing, unlike the decline in voting and membership of political parties over the past decade. For example, a recent survey of the top charities found that more than two million volunteers were involved in the work of the 156 charities that replied.[59] The social and political issues addressed by public bodies are scarcely less important than those tackled by charities and pressure groups. In certain obvious respects public bodies are more influential. But the numbers coming forward to join public bodies, especially from under-represented groups, are very disappointing in comparison. Throughout our inquiry, we tried to find reasons for that discrepancy, and to explore ways of renewing the civic tradition. Public appointments should be seen as presenting opportunities for extending civic participation.

Progress towards diversity

113. In the debate about diversity, the Government has been judged largely by its success in raising the proportions of women, people from ethnic minorities and people with a disability on public bodies to the proportions of these groups in the population at large. Our concerns range even wider, especially in relation to the representation of social class on public bodies. We take the view that socio-economic background is a significant barrier across the board: that is, that socio-economic background affects not only the representation of women and minorities on public bodies, but also leads to an unduly narrow recruitment of white males. Regional differences and age are also diversity issues.

114. But we first consider progress towards gender equality and minority representation. Government targets for 2005 are for 50 per cent of public appointments to be held by women, about 7-8 per cent by people from ethnic minorities (in line with their representation in the economically active population), and for a simple increase for people with disabilities.[60] As at the latest census, the proportion of women in the population was 51.3 per cent; and of people from ethnic minorities, 8.7 per cent. Less reliably, census figures suggest that as many as 18.2 per cent of the population has a disability or long-term illness (the figure for 'people reporting limiting long-term illness'.[61])

115. There has been solid progress in increasing the representation of women and minorities on public bodies since 1997. As at 31 March 2002, the figures were as follows:
March 2001* March 2002**2005 Target
Women34% 34%50 %
People with a disability (self-identified) 1.5%3.3%Increase on 2001 figure (1.5%)
Ethnic minority 4.8%6.2%7-8%
* includes appointments made by devolved administrations
** includes appointments made by UK government departments only (i.e., excludes devolved administrations)

116. The proportion of women on NDPBs varied between 20 per cent at the Home Office and MOD and 47 per cent among the 12 Cabinet Office NDPBs. The proportion of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in 2002 varied from none at the Treasury, MOD and Scotland Office to 11 per cent at the Department of Health; and the proportion for ethnic minority women was 1.5 per cent. The 3.3 per cent rate for people with a disability varied between nil at the Treasury and DEFRA to 12 per cent at Transport.

117. What progress is government making towards more equal representation? In 2001-2002, ministers made over 3,500 appointments and re-appointments to the boards of public bodies subject to OCPA regulation. The key statistics[62] are as follows:

  • 39 per cent of those appointed and re-appointed in 2001-2002 were women. This means that the proportion of women being appointed and re-appointed to the boards of these bodies has remained constant (around the 38-39 per cent mark) for the last five years;
  • Just under 9 per cent of those appointed and re-appointed in 2001-2002 were from an ethnic minority background. Thus the number of people from an ethnic minority background being appointed and re-appointed to the boards of public bodies remains relatively high. Numbers have now remained between 8.5 and 9 per cent for the past four years;
  • Nearly 3 per cent of those appointed and re-appointed in 2001-2002 declared a disability. Figures on disability have only been collected since 1999.

118. These figures may seem encouraging, but there are only about 3,000 new appointments each year (together with about the same number of re-appointments). It will therefore take several years for the composition of these bodies to become significantly more diverse.

Male, pale, stale

119. Meanwhile, much of the evidence we have received suggests that the public image of the corps of people who man (too often literally) public bodies is broadly right—they are, in the Commissioner's phrase, 'male, pale and stale'[63] (and with Alison Cawley's addition,[64] also 'hale'.)

120. There are structural imbalances. For example, as the Equal Opportunities Commission pointed out,[65] women fill just about a third of national and regional public posts, while around half of all local public appointments (school governorships, magistrates, NHS trustees) go to women. There are also, as we note above, significant differences between the proportions of women on boards sponsored by different departments.

121. We recognise the Government's commitment to more equality and diversity in public appointments through its plans to 'Open Up' public bodies published in1998. We have also heard a great deal of evidence from OCPA and the Cabinet Office on the efforts since then to improve the balance of women, people from the ethnic minorities and people with a disability on public bodies.[66] Government departments have adopted targets for appointing women, ethnic minority people and people with disabilities to NDPBs. The majority of public appointment vacancies are publicly advertised. The criteria for the level of advertising are set out in the OCPA Code of Practice. The Commissioner has sought to promote increased diversity through road-shows, training and other initiatives. The Cabinet Office has published plans, produced by each department, to increase diversity on their public bodies. The Women and Equality Unit in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has held seminars aimed at encouraging more women to apply for public appointments at national level (although the fact that they were 'invitation only' ran the risk that the seminars reached only the converted.).[67]

122. At the Cabinet Office, a ministerial group—the Short Life Working Group—is considering plans to improve diversity in public appointments. Recently, the Cabinet Office has moved to replace the obsolete Public Appointments Register, universally recognised (and criticised by many of our witnesses) as an ineffective 'dinosaur', with a single and more usable appointments website on which departments post their 'live' and future vacancies. More generally, we also recognise that the civil service is now more sensitive to issues of equality and diversity than most other organisations in the private or public sphere. But the problems of inequality and imbalance persist. We asked our witnesses the reason for this.

123. 'Awareness',[68] said Ms Helen Ghosh, then Director of the Central Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. 'Apprehension',[69] said the minister, Mrs Barbara Roche. They were describing the most recent DETR research which found that women on the lower rungs of the appointed state were unaware of the opportunities that exist at national level and were not confident that their competencies fitted the model for national bodies. The panel sets out the findings of the research into women's attitudes. Ms Cameron took the issue of 'confidence' deeper. For her, "working people, women and black and ethnic minority people are discouraged by the status quo. They do not have the role models". She argued that pay—'the recognition of worth'[70]—was a vital issue in diversifying service on public bodies. We return to this issue below.
Evidence on Obstacles to Women's Greater Participation


The Government's most recent research—a DETR survey—found that the most significant obstacles were:

  • Awareness of the opportunities—a feeling that appointments are not for 'people like them'; difficulties in finding out about vacancies
  • Attractiveness of public appointments—the image of the public sector—a perception that public bodies are a bureaucratic collection of the great and the good; a protracted selection process
  • Confidence in applying—women undervaluing their competencies compared with men; concern about the ability to do the job
  • Time—balancing the demands of a busy life, the timing and location of meetings, getting time off from employers
  • Child and elder care—not only the costs of replacements cover, but also the time spent away
  • Cash—the lack of remuneration for some posts and/or the inequitable levels of remuneration across different appointments. Some people simply cannot afford to take up a public appointment that is unpaid, or cannot risk time away from their paid employment.


Research by the Cabinet Office's Women and Equality Unit supports many of these findings. In terms of what would encourage more women to apply for public appointments, interviewees cited as priorities:

  • knowing where to find information about public appointments in general and about specific vacancies
  • the opportunity to shadow someone holding an appointment
  • the opportunity to learn more about the area relevant to the appointment
  • being part of a network


As for the main barriers, interviewees identified:

  • lack of awareness of opportunities
  • women's perception that their gender and background would be judged negatively by the interview panel members
  • the intimidating image of current public appointees
  • daunting interviews involving large interview panels (particularly an issue for women with non-professional backgrounds)[71]

The image barrier

124. Most people clearly think that service on public bodies, and especially national bodies, is not for them, as the evidence from MORI (quoted above) and other sources confirm.[72] Such perceptions are reinforced by socio-economic background, gender, ethnic status and disability. Even such a conspicuously confident individual as the broadcaster Fi Glover told us that she was influenced by the idea that she was not properly qualified to enter this closed preserve.[73] Such perceptions need changing. The less people believe that the appointments process is a closed circle in which personal links and background matter most, the more likely are people from all walks of life to apply or let their names go forward. The present image of public bodies is a barrier to wider participation.

125. Moreover, as we argued earlier, diversity and merit are mutually reinforcing goals. The more diversity the system achieves, the greater public confidence in its integrity grows. We are therefore pleased to note that the Commissioner for Public Appointments is now officially tasked with improving diversity; and that she has revised her working definition of merit to reconcile both goals. The revised OCPA Code of Practice now defines 'merit' to allow departments to take into account "the balance of a board, in terms of skills, gender and background, when deciding the criteria against which candidates are assessed".[74]

Lay representation

126. A drive to increase the representation of lay people—that is, able and competent people who may not have the 'traditional' qualifications and experience for public service—must be an important part of future policy on public appointments. The Government must make it clear that it is actively committed to broadening and developing the role of 'lay persons' on public bodies. The idea of lay representation, even on expert bodies, is far from revolutionary. The General Social Care Council[75] must by statute have a majority of lay members. Some of the most specialist of advisory bodies—for example, the Committee on the Safety of Medicines (CSM) and the Committee on Pesticides—already recruit lay members as a matter of course (two each in both cases.)

127. Professor Alasdair Breckinridge, chair of the CSM, made a valuable distinction between the two types of members on specialist committees like his: first, there were those who require "technical scientific expertise in very precise areas"; secondly, there were those who had broad experience but not in the specific area. Professor Breckinridge advised us that, for the 'expert' posts, appointments panels often chose a candidate from a list of appropriate candidates; "whilst this is not strictly speaking an election, it has a greater semblance of democracy than merely choosing one person". But while applicants for 'expert' posts on the Committee on the Safety of Medicines must possess the 'relevant scientific expertise' for the CSM to function, it would be 'entirely relevant' for the committee's lay members to be elected; or for that matter, we suggest, chosen by a process of random selection (or lot).[76] Mark Thomas also argued that each public body should contain a minimum quota of 'lay' members—that is, people with no previous direct experience of the relevant issues.[77]

128. There is also another aspect to the question of diversity. We have referred above (para. 77) to the need for public bodies to have within them alternative voices, to cultivate some 'grit in their oyster'. On 'expert' advisory bodies, it can be very useful to have voices that question the prevailing consensus. Different, even maverick voices can help clarify issues and prevent the easy acceptance of hasty and ill-considered decisions. There should always be a place for the constructively awkward customer. In particular, we would oppose any suggestion that simply balancing party representation on a public body will always achieve a true representation of the spread of political views. Where political nominations are made, they should reflect as far as possible the diversity of attitudes in the party, rather than simply the opinions and preferences of the leadership.

129. On the other hand it is important to recognise realities. Public bodies often exist to implement policies decided by a properly elected government. Someone who persists in purely destructive opposition to those policies is unlikely to make an effective member of such a body.

A national strategy

130. We have paid tribute to the Government's commitment to diversity and briefly reviewed some of its initiatives. Encouraging and positive though such initiatives have been, they have nevertheless been unco-ordinated and modest in scale, and fall short of what is required. In the eight years since the first report of the Nolan Committee, progress has certainly been made, but it is now vital that a more active and coherent approach should be taken to widening the pool of candidates for public life.

131. Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote was among those who made this point. 'In the absence of a plan,' he said, 'you are just crossing your fingers'.[78] Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, made the same point more strongly. Why, we asked her, was the Government having so much of a problem in achieving diversity? She replied that, so far as gender was concerned,

"The biggest reason is because there is not a consistent approach. There are lots of ad hoc initiatives, which are very welcome, but until every department looks at every aspect of its process… and builds in the gender aspect here, then I do not think that we will see the progress to more representation that we seek".[79]

132. The National Assembly for Wales is not just crossing its fingers. The Assembly's statutory obligation to promote equality is at the heart of a plan to "achieve applications for public appointments which are broadly representative of the Welsh population". This is closely linked to the Assembly's wider aspiration not simply to get a more diverse range of people onto its NDPBs and public bodies, but to enable them to "deliver appropriate services to the diverse population we have in Wales".[80] The Assembly is collecting a considerable amount of information about the current range of people on public bodies, and has a detailed action plan to make sure progress is made.

133. As part of its research, the Assembly plans to establish the facts on diversity on Welsh public bodies, the motivations of public appointees, their expectations, training needs and barriers to effective participation. There will be regular reviews to check on progress and benchmarking with UK departments to see whether practices can be improved. The voluntary sector will be brought in and asked for assistance in attracting more applications from suitable people in under-represented groups. The departments of the Assembly are to agree minimum standards for induction training for the bodies which they sponsor. We believe that the Assembly's plan, even if easier to implement in an area the size of Wales, provides a valuable model for a UK-wide national strategy.

134. We recommend that the Government build upon the report of the ministerial Short Life working group on diversity in public appointments to develop a high-profile national strategy to involve the public in a concerted drive to increase diversity and strengthen lay representation on public bodies.

Elements of a national strategy

135. Among the elements of a new national strategy should be these main recommendations already made in this report:

136. We now go on to develop another series of recommendations more specifically designed to increase lay representation and diversity on public bodies. Among the issues that we now consider are:

  • a review of the roles of public bodies, criteria for their non-executive board members and detailed examination of levels of diversity on public bodies;
  • a shift in the appointments criteria from previous experience to competencies and ability;
  • the role of selection by lot or election in widening representation;
  • issues of remuneration, care responsibilities, time off and benefit losses;
  • the need for induction courses, apprenticeships, mentoring and other support, especially for non-traditional candidates;
  • improvements to the processes of appointment to make them more accessible and flexible for a wider range of applicants.

137. A thread that runs through our consideration of measures to widen the pool of people on whom public bodies draw is an insistence on professionalism in the appointments process. We go on in this report to consider two ways in which the whole business of making appointments could be made more professional and efficient: either creating a National Appointments Commission, on the model of the NHS Commission, or creating specialist appointments units in and, where necessary, between departments.

138. We take the view that a national strategy to raise public awareness and a new emphasis on lay representation and diversity in Whitehall is an essential next step. But the recommendations that we make also stand on their own, with or without a new national strategy.

Review of the roles of public bodies and their members

139. The huge diversity of public bodies, with their different specialisms, needs and functions, demands a sensitive appraisal if a wider range of members is to be attracted and recruited to serve on them. We have already made the case for a comprehensive survey of public bodies and how they are categorised.

140. We heard authoritative evidence on the way in which the set of conventional criteria for recruiting people onto public bodies can frustrate the goal of increasing diversity. Sir William Wells, chairman of the NHS Appointments Commission, explained how the detailed criteria set by Frank Dobson, as Health Secretary, can unintentionally limit the diversity of people who make it onto public bodies. Sir William said that a cross-section of non-executive NHS board members showed them to be mainly white and middle class "and that is not representative of the people for whom they are going to be responsible". Mr Dobson's criteria were not achieving their original objectives and were "confining the field rather than expanding it" and creating a self-perpetuating group of people. "Why?" Sir William asked, and replied:

"Because they are concentrating on knowledge and skills. Knowledge and skills do preclude large numbers of people who we believe would have the competency to carry out the role… I have talked to both the Secretary of State and the Minister of State about it and they are supportive of us coming up with an appraisal which actually changes the way in which we recruit people to a competency-based interview process which we will make quite structural".[81]

141. Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, argued that all departments had a responsibility to examine whether their processes would deliver Nolan principles. 'If you look for an experience profile, you can end up with the same group of people; whereas, if you look for competence and skills, you are more likely to find a variety of people who may not have a traditional experience profile but actually do have the skills and expertise to contribute. And that is where merit and… what it is that is required to fulfil this public appointment, what are the skills and competence, have made a difference'.[82]


In written evidence to the Committee, Dame Rennie Fritchie, Commissioner for Public Appointments, said that the calibre and experience of the people needed to perform differing roles on differing public bodies varied, but experience suggests that there are certain core competencies which each member of a board should have:[83]

To be capable of original thinking

The ability to give a balanced view

The ability to keep an open mind and offer dispassionate advice

An appreciation of working within the public sector

The ability to make an effective contribution to the work of the body

A commitment to the aims of the body

An ability to negotiate

Leadership qualities

Sound judgement

Influencing skills

Public speaking skills

142. We share this emphasis on the need for a fundamental shift in attitudes towards conventional measures of merit. We believe that those can limit the field of potential non-executive board members and carry a risk of re-cycling the same kinds of narrowly-based candidates.

143. We recommend that the Government should reconsider the existing assumptions for measuring merit in the interests of competency-based recruitment and diversity as part of a wider review of the role of non-executive board members on public bodies.

144. A more sensitive appraisal of the statistics on gender, diversity and disability is also required. For example, Bert Massie CBE, chair of the Disability Rights Commission, made the point about the wide and diverse range of people with disabilities, who include people in wheelchairs (a minority, he said), people who are "overtly disabled", people using sticks, blind people, people who have epilepsy.[84] There are doubts about the capacity of self-reporting accurately to catch and reflect this diversity and some departments, as we heard from the Engage Network, do not record or set targets for the number of disabled people they appoint. The Engage Network[85] noted with alarm (which we share) that "different departments have different approaches to evaluating the number of disabled people they have appointed to public bodies… There also appears to be no agreement around the definition of disabled people with some departments unable to come up with a definition. It is unclear why the departments concerned did not consult the Disability Rights Commission for advice on this matter".

145. While the overall figure for the proportion of people from ethnic minorities serving on public bodies stands at 6.2 per cent, that for women from ethnic minorities is only 1.5 per cent. We also know very little about the breakdown between different groups; the Government should be able to say, for instance, how many Muslim women present themselves as candidates for public appointments—and how many succeed.

146. Only through systematic monitoring could Government collect the data to identify the gaps in diversity on public bodies and take steps to promote equality. Moreover, such monitoring would have to be complemented by a rigorous survey of the needs of public bodies for various types of expertise and experience.

147. We recommend that, as part of the national strategy, the Government review of public bodies should carefully monitor applications and appointments to public bodies with a view to promoting diversity.

148. We further recommend that Government should consider the requirements of public bodies for various types of expertise and experience and the variety of roles non-executive board members can play in order to gauge the prospects of increasing diversity and lay representation on such bodies.

A single equality act

149. The diversity plan of the National Assembly for Wales is driven in the first instance by the fact that the Assembly is under a statutory duty to promote equality, a general duty that also exists in Northern Ireland, but not in England or Scotland, or the United Kingdom as a whole. Professor Teresa Rees, former Equal Opportunities Commissioner for Wales, believed that a similar all-embracing duty to promote equality would "turn the whole thing around".[86] As she pointed out, there is a great deal of inconsistency in legislation on race, disability, women's opportunities, and so on. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 obliged all public authorities in the UK to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination and to promote equality for ethnic minorities. The Government has committed itself to extending this duty to grounds of gender and disability, but has taken no steps to implement this commitment.

150. Julie Mellor of the Equal Opportunities Commission said that a statutory duty on the public sector to promote equality "across all the grounds" (of possible discrimination) would constitute "the biggest stimulus" to progress on diversity:

"if we had it across all the grounds, combined with political leadership and senior management leadership, you would have a legal responsibility to be looking at every aspect of your policy design… it would look at the whole lot, including public appointments… that would be a huge stimulus for change—we have seen it where the Welsh Assembly have such a duty, and the combination of political will and having that duty has meant that they have made enormous progress in a very short space of time".[87]

151. Moreover, when the Committee took oral evidence from her and representatives of the CRE and Disability Rights Commission, we were told that a single Equality Act would be a necessary backdrop to Government proposals to merge the EOC, CRE and DRC into a new single wider equality body which in itself also had the potential to advance the diversity agenda.[88]

152. We recommend that the Government should introduce a single equality act that would lay a duty on all public authorities to promote equality and tackle discrimination.

59   See, for example, Democracy under Blair, Beetham D et al, Politico's 2002, Chapter 11, 'Active Citizenship' Back

60   Public Bodies: Opening Up Public Appointments 2002-2005, Cabinet Office, 2002 Back

61   Census 2001, National Statistics. Figures for the extent of disability vary with how they classify disability. For example, the Disability Rights Commission website suggests that there are 6.9 million disabled people of working age in Great Britain (nearly a fifth of the working age population), see Back

62   Seventh Report of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, 2001-2002, OCPA, 2002 Back

63   Q 02 Back

64   Q 1284 Back

65   PAP 40 Back

66   Cabinet Office press release, CAB 012/02 Back

67   PAP 43 Back

68   Q 389 Back

69   Ibid. Back

70   Q 1215 Back

71   Report of the Short Life Working Group on Improving Diversity in Public Appointments, Cabinet Office, February 2003,paras 16-18. Back

72   see para 55 Back

73   Q 465 Back

74   Op.cit. page 10 Back

75   PAP 22 Back

76   PAP 14 Back

77   PAP 08 Back

78   Q 718 Back

79   Q 760 Back

80   'Mainstreaming Equality in Public Appointments' Back

81   Q 855 Back

82   Q 765 Back

83   PAP 66 Back

84   Q 804 Back

85   PAP 57 Back

86   Q 982 Back

87   Q 773 Back

88   Q 784-87 Back

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