I had a great discussion with a colleague last week on one particular aspect of the multi-layered problem of accountability in political life, and across public services. We had just attended a seminar led by John Dunford, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, and one attendee had made a point about the value of school boards.
Post-seminar, we discussed the value of representation versus expertise – of the need for effective policy scrutiny, versus the need for an accountable body properly reflecting the diversity of values, background and opinion being represented. Ideally, we would have both. But this is not always the case.
This got me thinking about the diversity (or otherwise) of the world that policy wonks (sorry), civil servants etc inhabit. It isn’t particularly diverse, and, anecdotally at least, is very Oxbridge and home-counties centric. But is this a problem? In some ways, I think yes. Perspective, values, expectations and experiences – we benefit from diversity in all of these things. On the other hand, good ideas are good ideas…and we can’t really admonish thinktanks, government departments or quango boards for recruiting what they see as the best and most qualified candidates.
The difficulty of arriving at a solution is explored today in a nice article by Catherine Bennett, which would be better read than summarised here. But at its root, the issue is about social mobility. As Alan Milburn said this week, the route into university (and the opportunities this opens up) are key. According to the BBC today,
“Recruiting more students from a wider range of social backgrounds into university has been seen as a key to social mobility. But the report suggests that much more needs to be done – with fears that the university system can reinforce disadvantage rather than reduce it. It will call for leading universities to take into account the social background of pupils – particularly when pupils from low-achieving schools are competing against independent school pupils with a tradition of very high grades.”
The report will be eagerly awaited – especially by those who heard Mr Milburn talk about its emerging findings at a recent 2020 seminar. This might be an initiative born in downing street, but with a message that will hopefully ripple across the political spectrum.