You don't have to be white and male to walk tall in public life

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The Independent Online

Do you want to contribute to public life? But only want to commit a couple of days a month, or even a year, and get the travelling and childcare paid for? A public appointment could be the answer. There are more than 1,000 non-departmental public bodies and 500 National Health Service trusts. And, whether it's the board of the Scottish Arts Council, The Committee for Monitoring Agreements on Tobacco, Advertising and Sponsorship, or the Crofters Commission, it's likely there will be at least one that will welcome your expertise.

Do you want to contribute to public life? But only want to commit a couple of days a month, or even a year, and get the travelling and childcare paid for? A public appointment could be the answer. There are more than 1,000 non-departmental public bodies and 500 National Health Service trusts. And, whether it's the board of the Scottish Arts Council, The Committee for Monitoring Agreements on Tobacco, Advertising and Sponsorship, or the Crofters Commission, it's likely there will be at least one that will welcome your expertise.

The kind of person who has a seat on a board, be it quango or NHS trust, is stereotyped as being heavily involved in politics. But in reality very few of the 35,000 people holding public appointments have such a background. More important are skills in decision-making, analysis, contribution to group discussions, commitment and expertise in relevant subjects. In fact, it is because the Government has recognised the need for public bodies truly to reflect society that the predominance of white middle-class men on boards is now being tackled.

"In September 1999, only 33 per cent of public appointments were held by women and only 4.7 per cent by ethnic minorities," says Dame Rennie Fritchie, who this March became Commissioner for Public Appointments. She monitors, regulates and lays down procedures for ministerial appointments to executive, advisory and non-departmental public bodies. From her research, it is clear that public awareness of the appointments is a key factor in attracting a wider range of members.

"There is still a long way to go to make public appointments diverse," admits Dame Rennie. "But I have established a range of initiatives to start the ball rolling. In November, for instance, I will be piloting a public service week to promote public appointments." With the help of the Commission for Racial Equality, The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission, the Public Service week will begin on 20 November in Manchester, incorporating various events and exhibitions and opportunities for shadowing people already holding a public appointment.

A further attempt by the Government to increase equal opportunities is its publication entitled Opening Up Public Appointments, an action plan which aims to ensure all appointments are made on merit, as well as recognising that non-traditional career patterns are suitable qualifications for appointments.

As part of the plan, all departments - such as the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) which is responsible for more than 450 public appointments, including the Race in Employment and Education Forum, and the National Disability Council - have goals and objectives to expand membership.

"We have improved marketing through targeted vacancy advertising, attendance at careers fairs and contact with community organisations," explains a spokesperson for the DfEE. "In addition, we have increased the number of supported ethnic minorities undergraduate work placements - entitled the Windsor Fellowship programme - and launched a secondment initiative to bring in more senior managers from outside the department from under-represented groups."

So how do you go about getting a public appointment? The Public Appointment Unit's list is your best bet since you can either nominate yourself or be nominated. While the unit is not responsible for recruitment, it does hold a database of more than 6,000 names and details. Alternatively, you can respond to advertisements or consult with interested bodies.

Experience in finance, marketing, personnel, IT or in a particular sector such as banking, arts, education, social services, environment or retailing, is most usually required. But it does not matter whether you have gained this at top managerial level or from doing voluntary work with arts groups or parent/teacher associations. Committee work, chairing or contributing to discussions and decision-making, analysing problems, assessing information impartially and helping to take well-judged decisions, are also valued.

Most public appointments are part-time and unpaid. But, claims the Public Appointments Unit, they offer an invaluable opportunity to play an important and constructive part in local communities and the national political process.

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