GOVERNMENT AIMS HIGH WITH DIVERSITY TARGETS
Harriet Harman tells public sector employers to stop ‘fishing in same pool’ and increase representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people on the payroll…
Targets set to obtain more diversity in public appointments are now more ambitious than those for senior public sector managers.
Last week the Government Equalities Office and the Cabinet Office announced an action plan to increase the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people on more than 1,200 public bodies, arguing that their presence is necessary, not simply in the services of a fairer society, but to society in general is better served by public services and policies.
The argument is sound and the action plan has been welcomed. But will it succeed in its aims or will it join a pile of well-meaning initiatives that has failed, so far, to increase the real representation of those from under-represented groups across the public sector?
The government says it makes “no apology” for setting high targets in future for new appointments to public bodies. By 2011, it wants 50% of such appointments to be women, 14% to be disabled people and 11% to be from an ethnic minority background.
These figures will be regulated by the Office of the Commission of Public Appointments to ensure those newly appointed to public bodies reflect more fairly the mix of people in the wider community.
But if there is no apology for high targets here, then perhaps remorse is needed elsewhere. It is fair to say that the government has attempted to increase diversity within the public sector workforce – but at the most senior levels, progress has been very limited, and that was reflected last year, when the government set its five-year targets for increasing female representation at the most senior levels of central government.
It said that by 2013, it wants 39% of senior civil servants to be women and 34% of top management posts to be filled by women by 2013: much lower targets than Harriet Harman, in her role as minister for women and equality, announced last Wednesday.
Will the new measures solve the problem? It will be a slow process. The total number of appointments covered by the new targets is about 1,300 people a year, so the overall rise in increasing diversity on public bodies will be slow. But the overall trend is welcomed by many of those already on public bodies.
Former lawyer Naseem Malik, a commissioner at the independent police complaints commission, who is a non-executive director of Blackburn with Darwen primary care trust and a part-time immigration judge in the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, says she hopes that publicising existing public appointees from under-represented groups will encourage more people to take up public appointments, although she warns that people do need to be properly prepared for the work involved.
The public sector often regards itself as leading the field in diversity, so it was something of a shock when last week also saw another report out showing that the public sector is now trailing private companies in promoting race diversity.
Published by Race for Opportunity, the employer’s league table on race diversity initiatives in 79 organisations has two private sector firms, BT and Pearson, top of the list. The top-rated public sector employer is the Ministry of Defence, third on the list. Fourth on the list is what was the business department before it was merged with the universities department, and the Home Office came fifth.
This is a humiliating finding for the government, which is committed to increasing the diversity of the public sector workforce, and for Harman, a long-time proponent of public sector diversity. At this week’s launch of the new action plan, warmly received by her audience, Harman gave a typically forthright defence of the need for diversity in public life, saying diversity is necessary to ensure decisions are made by people with wide experience of life.
She also told headhunters and recruitment firms they need to “fish in different pools”, criticising them for too often recycling the same people into different public body posts, and said people should apply for public posts not to promote themselves, but because their skills and expertise are needed. “We need you to step forward,” she said.