Public Services Management: A woman's environment: Rachel Lipman on the search by a government department for more female candidates for public office

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The Independent Online
BY HER own admission, Paula Ridley has taken on the biggest challenge of her career to date by becoming chair of the newest and biggest Housing Action Trust in the country.

But she is unlikely to be daunted by the prospect, having already worked as a lecturer (she holds a research degree in political theory and institutions), a consultant on economic development, and a presenter on Granada Television's Granada Action, dealing with welfare rights issues.

The Liverpool Housing Action Trust (HAT) is a public body charged with regenerating some of the most run- down local authority housing stock in Britain. The 10-year project has a budget of more than pounds 100m and the aim is to revitalise Liverpool's public housing in full consultation with the residents - some 5,500 households in 67 tower blocks.

Now the Department of the Environment, which chose Ms Ridley to chair the Liverpool trust, is looking for more women like her to join the boards of its public bodies. She was appointed by Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to take responsibility for the HAT's strategic direction, policy-making and financial management.

She describes as 'stimulating' the task of juggling a wide range of sometimes conflicting issues, working alongside colleagues from diverse backgrounds and with different views.

'I like the feeling of doing something for the public. It's public money, involving massive decisions for which you're accountable,' she says.

As the Government moves steadily - though too slowly for some - towards the goals of increased opportunity for women to play a bigger part in public life in the wake of the Opportunity 2000 initiative, Lord Strathclyde, the Environment Minister, has announced a drive to increase appointments of women and people from ethnic minorities to the boards of public bodies that assist ministers in formulating or applying policy.

The Department of the Environment alone makes around 1,000 public appointments, some 50 to 60 a year, to bodies such as British Waterways, the National Rivers Authority, the Audit Commission, the Property Advisory Group, the Housing Corporation, Housing Action Trusts and Urban Development Corporations.

Candidates are in particular demand in areas where the expertise and understanding of lay people - whether specialists or not - are needed. The department says they could come from the business community, finance, management, marketing, local government, the voluntary sector, a specialist area or just through an interest in the work of the public body concerned. According to Ms Ridley, potential candidates should be 'quick thinkers', good team players and people with a wide experience of life, able to use good analytical skills in making non-prejudiced decisions. And you do not have to agree with the present Government's policies.

Ms Ridley believes women are sometimes hesitant to put themselves forward for public office, but should be encouraged to do so. She says women often have different skills that come from having pursued career patterns other than the traditional male ones, which means their talent and experience can be unrecognised and underestimated.

She knows all about the problem of combining a busy professional life with family commitments, and how much dedication that requires: she is on the boards of the Merseyside Development Corporation and the Tate Gallery; before that she spent seven years as a member of the board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

The top jobs in managing public bodies, such as the Liverpool HAT, obviously require regular commitment - at least one or two days a month - so for those in regular employment a tolerant boss is a must. But Ms Ridley says employers can be persuaded to see the advantages to be derived from a cross- fertilisation of ideas. 'It's what you bring back to your company that should be important to the employer. Gaining extra experience helps people to do their own jobs better.'

(Photograph omitted)