The honours system could be revamped amid fears the choices lie in the hands of a mostly white, male elderly elite.
Jamie Oliver was one of the non-civil servants in the last honours list
Ministers are considering changes after complaints that too few women and people from ethnic minorities get gongs, government papers show.
The review of the current system warns it would be embarrassing if the names of selectors became public.
Government figures also show only one nurse in 20,000 gets an award, compared with one in every 123 diplomats.
The Wilson review of the selection process, written in 2000 and 2001, has been published in a rare move after pressure from an influential group of MPs.
The review says the secret committees which recommend names for honours are 85% male and 96% white, with an
average age of 60.
If the names were known, "the likely judgement would be that the membership
is not right for this day and age," the review papers say.
"The 54 members would be characterised as a
predominantly white, male elderly elite."
They continue: "How can these committees, whose members themselves are part of
the country's elite, hope to do more than skim the surface and follow the
natural tendency to concentrate on their own top levels?
"It would be very difficult... to rebut criticism of their unrepresentative
"With the government so publicly committed to a diverse and meritocratic
society, it would be embarrassed to be seen operating an honours system in which
the final assessments are made by such a small elite and with such limited input
from women and members of the ethnic minorities."
Number 10 responsible
The review suggests just addressing the balance when filling vacancies would take too long.
And reducing the number of civil servants would also deliver only marginal differences, it says.
A third option to be considered by ministers would be increasing the number of independent people - from outside the civil service - on the committees, it says.
Formally, the Queen awards honours such as knighthoods, MBEs and OBEs, but the review says the prime minister is really responsible for those chosen.
Tony Wright, chairman of the Commons public administration select committee which pressed for the papers to be published, said the move was a "double victory for Parliament and citizen".
"The review sets out important options for change to a system that plays a
vital role in public life, motivating people and recognising achievement," he said.
"It should have been made public years ago, but the government has up to now
been coy about it, perhaps fearing that publication of such policy papers would
set an uncomfortable precedent.
"Now the government appears to have accepted that policy papers of this type
should be made public where possible.
"The heartening message is that, for the government, the public interest may
be starting to outweigh considerations of bureaucratic convenience.
"This is an
excellent decision and a vindication of the committee's decision to inquire into
the honours system."