Is it what you know or who you know?

4 10 2010

There was a perception, and perhaps there still is, that getting a place on the board of a quango depends upon who you know. If you had a pal on the board of a public body, or knew someone who was part of the appointments process, then they would give you the nod. There was a feeling that jobs were spread amongst a few of the usual suspects.

Over the past few years the application process has become more open and the intention has been that it should be ” what you know not who you know” that is the important factor in selection. But has this change in attitude brought a change in the composition of public bodies? I wonder?

When you look at the individuals who hold board positions you can see that many of them hold more than one post. It would appear that board positions are still being shared amongst a relatively small number of people. True, the more open process means that posts can no longer be allocated through the old boy network so how do the same names keep appearing?

My suspicion is that increasingly the “what you know” does not apply to the complete skill set of the individual but to their ability to navigate their way through the application process.

In my discussions with Karen Carlton recently, she indicated that the language used on the application forms was being interpreted by lawyers in a way that wasn’t intended and which had resulted in them being disadvantaged in the process. When I spoke to Anne McLean OBE she spoke about a recent meeting she had had with women at the STUC. The women didn’t recognise that the talents that they exhibited everyday were exactly the expertise and experiences required to sit on the board of a public body. The language used on the forms did not allow them to match their skills to the requirements of the post even when they had all of the skills needed.

Both of these experiences, and the comment made by Roseanna Cunningham MSP when we met that she was quite often presented with the same names when making a ministerial appointment, suggest that board members are being selected from a small pool of people who know how to apply.

But the problem of selection from a small pool works form the other direction too. In speaking with Beth Edberg she indicated that board members of the Women’s Fund are found through their own network, for example, via their own fund raising events. And a friend who is the full time official at a small charity which helps individuals with severe mental health problems found their newest board member from the circle of friends of the charity. I can’t help feeling that we are not making the most of the talent available when making public appointments.

Beth identified that the main reason that there are so few women on the boards of public bodies is that “no-one asked them!” That is probably true but is it good enough?

Time has been cited by many as the reason why more women don’t get involved and Anne McLean OBE and Jane Irvine are particularly eloquent in this regard but I, at least, cannot use this as an excuse. As most readers will already know, I spend several evenings and most weekends helping at a community for adults with moderate to severe learning difficulties so I can find time but for all of the voluntary work and the fact that I have held board positions since I was 29 years old, I haven’t once considered applying for a position of governance.

In my defence, I had assumed that these posts were only awarded to the great and the good. Reading the biographies of the fabulous women who kindly agreed to give their views in the3rdi magazine this month, it is clear that they are great and good but it is also clear that they are there on merit.

One of my intentions in forming the 3rdi magazine was to make a difference in the areas of work where women are still disadvantaged. To make a difference on a national or global scale what better way than to become involved in the public bidies that affect all of our lives? So, in line with Ghandis famous saying “be the change you want to be” I will issue a call to public bodies to come and get me and a challenge to myself to put myself forward!

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