REUTERS | Jason Lee

Is public health expertise needed in UK boardrooms?

In August, the dean of Harvard’s school of public health, Michelle Williams, called on companies to appoint public health professionals to their boards and C-Suite to help manage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may hang over businesses for years to come. Does such a call apply to UK boardrooms, their structure and the responsibilities of UK non-executive directors (NEDs)?

What expertise does your board need?

Succession planning is a core responsibility for NEDs, and a board with the right mix of skills, experience and expertise is far more likely to lead an organisation to sustainable success. In the past six months boards have had to address the immediate, medium and longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenges, risks and opportunities have emerged and boards with the right combination of skills and expertise have been better positioned to respond to the pandemic.

So, should boards bring public health experts to the board table to help them prepare for the next phase of the pandemic? Should public health experts be appointed as NEDs? Would public health experts also be able to contribute to areas of board responsibility such as:

  • Strategy.
  • Finance.
  • Risk and audit.
  • Succession planning.
  • Remuneration.
  • ESG.
  • Digital transformation.
  • Regulation.
  • Stakeholder engagement.

Consider alternative solutions

NEDonBoard cautions against the addition of highly specialist expertise at board level. We recommend that careful consideration is given to the ability of NEDs to discharge their duty as a company director and to alternative ways of incorporating public health expertise into decision-making.

There is no doubt that input from public health experts is necessary and that some public health experts have the skills to discharge the duty of company directors. However, there are alternatives to bringing public health experts on to the board. NEDonBoard proposes the following avenues for boards to explore:

  • Reflect on the first wave of COVID-19 and how you have had to adapt. What has worked well and what has needed adjustment? What skills, experience and expertise were missing or needed strengthening?
  • Re-assess the skills, experience and expertise required in light of your strategy. Does your organisation require public health expertise? If the answer is yes, advertise your NED vacancy accordingly (note that some NEDonBoard members are public health experts!).
  • Consider accessing expertise as and when it is needed, for example during a board off-site. Invite a public health professional to present to your board and ask questions so that you have the data and research you need to make effective and informed decisions.
  • Consider establishing an advisory board tasked with organising the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated risks, challenges and opportunities. Public health experts could be appointed as advisory board members, who are not subject to the Company Act 2006.

Over to you! Have you appointed a public health expert to your board in recent months or do you intend to do so in the next few months? How have your boards received the expert information it needs to make decisions? We look forward to hearing your views at

Should you or your company need public health expertise on your board or advisory board, please contact NEDonBoard at Some of the NEDonBoard members have deep experience and expertise in the sector and we would be delighted to introduce them to you.

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