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How to appoint public bodies that are effective

Seven years ago, the figures for ministerial public appointments were a clear sign of failure.

Nearly two- thirds of the people appointed to the boards of public bodies were male. Only 3% had a disability and only 3% were from a black or ethnic minority background.

Needless to say, this does not reflect the proportions of women, minorities or people with disabilities in Scottish life. It is not just a matter of political nicety to attempt to redress the balance. The organisations appointed to deliver ministerial policy in key sectors such as education, the arts, health and social care are often only as effective as their boards. Public boards matter, whether they are protecting the environment, deciding who is released from prison, protecting building standards or promoting tourism.

This is not about positive discrimination. Instead, it is about the unnecessary exclusion of people who should be able to make a contribution to improving services for all of us.

It is self-evident that a board drawn from more varied backgrounds and with a fuller spectrum and knowledge and experience is likely to be better equipped to meet the needs of the many and varied communities and interest groups in Scottish society.

The Office of the Commissioner on Public Appointments was certainly set up with that view. The production of a diversity strategy to uncover the reasons for the lack of variety in board appointments was an express part of her legal duties.

This strategy was duly produced in 2008. Diversity Delivers was given full ministerial backing at the time for its proposals to redress the imbalance of public appointees.

The reasons for the under-representation of minority groups were not straightforward discrimination, it suggested.

A lack of appointments replicated a lack of applications - too few women, people with disabilities and members of ethnic minorities were coming forward to apply for board roles.

Too few still are. Despite a range of proposals to address this, a follow-up report three years later warned progress was slow. It has remained slow. Indeed, it has gone into reverse. Last year, applications from minority groups were the second worst since Diversity Delivers was published. Many people still do not know about the opportunities available.

While ministers insist they are committed to the public appointments diversity agenda and building on the work begun by Diversity Delivers, it is not clear why more has not been done.

The distribution of a DVD and a range of outreach events are plainly not having the desired effects. Proposed research into whether board meeting times or changes to the remuneration on offer would have an effect has not been commissioned. The establishment of public boards and a corporate diversity programme board does not somehow seem like a move that will keep people awake, let alone encourage them to get involved.

Ministers make the right noises. But they must take action if they want to improve the diversity and thereby the effectiveness of public bodies.

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