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…

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  • Korhomme

    A thought: I wonder if the poor representation of (middle aged) women is a remnant of history, from the times when women in NI were housewives and little else. That’s not so long ago; a cultural change to engage women might well take a generation or two. Are we expecting this change too soon?

  • eireanne

    @Korhomme who wrote “I wonder if the poor representation of (middle aged) women is a remnant of history, from the times when women in NI were housewives and little else”.

    Lots of female baby boomers, now aged around 60, have had professional careers, rode the second wave of feminism and survived 30 years of civil strife. They are/were certainly not “housewives and little else”

    PS have you ever met a lady doctor, teacher, pharmacist, professor, architect etc in NI?

  • mickfealty

    Korhomme, you need to get out more!! 😉

    I think the New Commissioner is trying to make a comprehensible and resonant argument for diversity in appointments by starting with the first and most glaring deficit. But I think her intention to try to embarrass the big two into a more transparent and comprehensive approach to public appointments.

    She cannot have been blindsided on the reality faced by her two predecessors.

  • Granni Trixie


  • Sharpie

    I cannot see why it is so hard. It has to be done organisation by organisation – there is no overarching policy that stops minority and female appointments so it has to be down to the governance of each organisation. Despite the nefarious, unwelcome, often insidious interfering in the work of NDPB’s by civil servants (and sure wasn’t she one herself) there is every possibility for the boards and senior management of such organisations to positively encourage people to apply for posts on their board.

    I know there is a culture problem across all of the country on this stuff – its symptomatic of all the other shite we see but it can be tackled board by board. Perhaps with her legal background the gamekeeper turned poacher is the best role to have in driving change. In this respect I wish her luck and success.

  • Korhomme

    You are probably right, Mick; I’m an eremite, I know!

    I wasn’t trying to criticise, only to understand “where we are, and where we come from”.

    I vividly remember, when I was at work, putting the question of whether the patient would benefit from an operation (or not) to them, and trying to get a decision out of them; it was the idea of the patient, fully informed, being responsible for their choices. Yet so often, I was told something along the lines of, “I’ll do what you think best” or, “I’ll leave the decision up to you”. I simply could not get a decision from these people; it was as if someone else had always made the decisions for them. And the ones I remember were all middle-aged women. In fairness, I should say that this did emphatically not apply to all middle-aged women, or to any other group.

  • Korhomme

    See reply to Mick, below.

  • Korhomme

    When in a hole. Stop digging.

  • Granni Trixie

    Have to say that though I try to take some responsibility for my own health, I am “guilty” of listening carefully to the advice of doctors on the basis that they are better informed than myself……a bit like parents often seek advice of teachers as regards courses for their children.

  • Boglover

    As a white (not-so) middle-aged male, I have served on several NDPB Boards over the last 10 years. From that perspective, I would say that standards of governance are slowly improving from a fairly low base. One of those improvements is a growing recognition of the need for greater diversity of membership, both from skills/experience base and gender.
    However, the aspiration to improve is often frustrated by factors beyond board members’ control. Firstly, NDPB Chairs are almost universally male and may not be as open to female succession as they should be. Secondly, the specifications for members’ skills are seldom truly gender-neutral in that they seek to recruit members with skills that are under-represented in the female half of the population. Finally, the NDPB recruitment process is overseen by civil servants who are themselves predominantly male.
    From my experience of governing boards generally, there is a shortage of certain skills such as accountancy and legal experience which means that when a candidate offers their services, you don’t hang around to check their gender, you just check that they are suitable. Certainly I cannot recall ever having to choose between two equally qualified individuals in these fields!
    Another point to bear in mind is that the majority of NDPBs require Ministerial sign-off of the appointment of board members and Chairs. I do know of cases where the female candidate has been selected from the list send to the Minister, even when they were not the front-runner. If this is the case, why not have a quota system? That way we’ll achieve the balanced boards we’re seeking, even if it is at the expense of quality.

  • Granni Trixie

    I think to understand what’s going on you have to look at who are the gatekeepers. For example, the thinking of whoever designs the applications form,marking scheme can determine who accesses Boards. As the analysis above indicates, Application forms tend to reflect traditional (male) work and life experience. More imaginatively designed Forms could remedy this accompanied by an examination of the value base of the Board.

    This applies not just Public Boards but charitable/voluntary bodies where one can contribute as well as gain valuable experience leading to PB appointments.

    Then you have the potential problem of more subtle forms of discrimination in the system of electing someone to be Board Chair,Vice chair. Can be that members are asked to put themselves forward and women hold back. Or traditionally Vice chair becOmes Chair so there is less turnover.

    I welcome this debate as an awareness raising exercise.

  • Sharpie

    “I’ll do what you think best”

    That’s a whole other thread – there is a weird Northern Ireland relationship with authority in white coats that is very deep and irrational. At least the women make it along to the Dr whereas men are mostly too afraid to do that.