NI Commissioner for Public Appointments: “We just do not have diverse representation on our public boards.”

The new Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland, Judena Leslie, made her first media appearance on BBC NI’s The View last week.  And she began where her predecessor left off, criticising the lack of diversity in those public appointments.  From the BBC report

Northern Ireland has about 1,400 public appointments, ranging from unpaid boards of further education colleges to many high profile paid positions.

Women, ethnic minorities and people with a disability are all under-represented on public bodies.

Thirty-three per cent of appointees are women, 2% are people with a disability and 1% are under the age of 30 or come from ethnic minorities.

Ms Leslie said: “The criticism is correct, it is too slow. The figures if anything are going backwards in some areas. We just do not have diverse representation on our public boards.”

And a reminder of what her predecessor, John Keanie, said when he resigned in July after 4 years in the post.

John Keanie said he is quitting as commissioner for public appointments after four years due to frustration at a lack of change in the way quango members are selected.

Mr Keanie has particular concerns about the failure to address the propensity of white, middle-aged males on the boards of public bodies, as well as people sitting on several quangos at one time.

The departing commissioner has highlighted a lack of political leadership from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) alongside the “reactive nature of officialdom”. [added emphasis]

“What is really not fair is the whole culture of public appointments – the way job descriptions are developed,” Mr Keanie told the Irish News.

“The system is filling slots on boards rather than assembling teams of complementary abilities, views and perspectives. That’s intrinsically unfair to the wide range of people who would like to contribute.”

He spoke of a lacklustre response to 26 recommedations he made in January [2014] for improving the quango appointment process and making it more appealing to females, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities.

In my interview for this post I made it very clear to the panel that I would be measured on diversity but I was appalled at the lack of support that that part of my work generated in the system and I increasingly became appalled by it,” he said.

The commissioner said senior civil servants supported his recommendations “in principle” but took six months to “tell me what I already knew – that all the recommendations were feasible”.

“It’s 18 months since my report was published and all I hear is ‘we’re going to do more research on it’,” he said.

“Despite all the supportive talk in principle I don’t see any change in the public appointment process.” [added emphasis]

Mr Keanie said suggestions that his remit be widened to enable interventions before appointments were made was met with resistance from within the civil service.

“The reaction was astounding,” he said.

“Talk about resistance to change – there is even resistance to constructive suggestions.”

And, indeed, what his predecessor, Felicity Huston, said when she stepped down from the role in 2011 as she, pointedly, wished whoever her successor would be “the best of luck”

She said there were difficulties asserting her role as a regulator at Stormont.

People recruit people who look like them, sound like them and have the same life and work experiences,” she said.

The commissioner said there were other issues about the independence of her position.

“The International Ombudsman’s Organisation wouldn’t recognise my office by their standards as independent as I don’t have proper control of my budget, I don’t have my own staff and I am subject to the same cuts as other civil servant departments.” [added emphasis throughout]

As for the new Commissioner, she has a suggestion…

According to the new commissioner, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness should make a joint public declaration supporting greater diversity.

Ms Leslie said: “I would like the first minister and the deputy first minister to say out clearly that they favour and support and will promote an increased representation of women in decision making roles.

“And in this instance, that means more chairs of public boards and more women on public boards.”

[Small steps? – Ed]  Well, good luck with that…