Dismissal, Diversity and Public Appointments

by Marc Geddes

This piece was first published with Felicity Matthews on the PSA Insight blog, on 21 February 2014. Available here.

On 30 January 2014, The Independent revealed that Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove would not re-appoint Baroness Sally Morgan for a second term as the chief executive of Ofsted. On the next morning’s Today Programme, Baroness Morgan claimed that: ‘I am the latest of a fairly long list of people now who are non-Conservative supporters who are not being re-appointed. I think there is absolutely a pattern. It’s extremely worrying’. The media seized on the issue, and whilst Michael Gove has defended his decision in the language of renewal and ‘bringing a new pair of eyes to bear’, speculation has been rife regarding the real reasons for the non-renewal of Lady Morgan’s contract.  Moreover, many of those close to both Ofsted and Secretary of State have expressed grave concerns.  In evidence to the Education Select Committee, the Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw was vehement in his defence of the outgoing Chair, and described how he asked Gove to reconsider his decision; and sources close to David Laws, Gove’s own Schools Minister, have suggested that he is ‘absolutely furious’ at the attempt to ‘politicise’ Ofsted.

The decision not to re-appoint Baroness Morgan has also been cited as evidence of the failure to ensure diversity in public life, and critics have drawn attention to the removal of other high-profile women from positions of prominence, including Dame Liz Forgan as Chair of the Arts Council and Dame Suzi Leather as Chair of the Charities Commission. Confronting Michael Gove on The Andrew Marr Show, Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman attacked the ‘cull of senior authoritative women’, arguing that it is ‘raining men’ under the Conservatives.

The public furore surrounding the dismissal of Baroness Morgan has therefore sparked a series of questions regarding the extent to which public life remains inaccessible to anyone who is not – to invoke the rhetoric of former Commissioner for Public Appointments Dame Rennie Fritchie – male, pale and stale.   A recent analysis by The Times has revealed that under the Coalition, the proportion of women being appointed to public bodies has risen from 36.4% in 2010 to 39% in 2013, which ostensibly disproves accusations of gender bias.  However, a simple focus on raw numbers fails to explore the extent to which public life remains inhospitable to women and other under-represented groups.

Research conducted by the authors has underlined a range of constraints on, and barriers to, greater diversity in public life.   Many aspects of the public appointments process have served to entrench narrow ideas of who could take on such a role, including over-specified job descriptions; narrow definitions of expertise and experience; and insufficient remuneration in comparison with similar roles in the private sector.  Our research has also revealed the way in which the adversarial – often tribal – culture of Westminster politics can be daunting to those not imbued with such norms, and in particular there is concern regarding the ‘deterrent effect’ of pre-appointment hearings by select committees, which during this parliament have become increasingly adversarial in the best tradition of Westminster.

Thus, whilst Harriet Harman’s accusation of an active ‘cull’ of women remains speculative, the decision not to re-appoint Baroness Morgan as Chair of Ofsted potentially undermines the fragile progress made in recent years in terms of improving the diversity of life.  In terms of raw numbers alone, the loss of so many high-profile female public Chairs will affect progress against the Coalition’s own aspiration of opening-up public life to previously under-represented groups.  Perhaps of greater significance, however, is the underlying public message that the failure to re-appoint so many high-profile women sends out.  Relatively few women occupy prominent positions in British public life, as so vividly illustrated in the Coalition’s all-male frontbench at a recent PMQs; and without the sufficient visibility of women and other under-represented groups, the risks exists that preconceptions regarding who is suited to public life will become further entrenched.  Moreover, it is widely accepted that diversity in representation has the capacity to enhance the legitimacy of political institutions and the quality of the political process; and in a period of burgeoning political disengagement, it is crucial that sponsoring ministers and regulators alike appreciate the potential of such public appointments as vehicles of participation both within Whitehall and across society at large.