Appointments to the boards of public bodies usually attract very little attention unless it’s to a high-profile body like the BBC. In fact, in recent years, more than 1,000 board appointments have been made by ministers each year. These numbers will reduce significantly as the Government cuts the number of public bodies.
But, even then, there will remain a large number of public bodies, spending more than £30 billion of public money per year and carrying out functions as diverse as helping government prepare for climate change to regulating the gas and electricity markets. They will, more than ever, need talented, experienced people willing to give their time to the best kind of “public service”.
Sir David Normington,
I have recently taken up the post as the regulator of these appointments. As the Commissioner for Public Appointments, my remit is to ensure that the process is fair and open and that appointments by ministers are made on merit. It seems obvious stuff now but it is actually only 15 years since this principle was established. Prior to that, these appointments were often made by simply picking from a list of the “great and good” in Whitehall, or by a minister or senior civil servant phoning up someone he knew. Now we can say with some satisfaction that there are proper processes in place to select the best candidates and to reduce the opportunity for cronyism and political patronage.
This has been a quiet but huge cultural change, brought about by the hard work of my predecessor commissioners and those in government departments who run the process.
But the job is not finished. As someone whose last job was as a permanent secretary in a large government department, I know how much time and effort it takes to recruit the best people. A big hurdle is to get the best people from a range of different backgrounds to apply in the first place.
The statistics speak for themselves. The numbers of women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled candidates appointed to public boards have remained pretty static in recent years. The age range of appointees has also changed very little over time and overwhelmingly includes those who are retired or semi-retired.
I came to this post with a remit to examine the scope for a more proportionate, principled and risk-based regulatory regime for public appointments; to streamline and simplify the process for applicants while ensuring that there can be public confidence in a merit-based system, free of patronage or cronyism.
I believe that the process for appointing to the boards of public bodies is too detailed and cumbersome; and streamlining it can help to increase the confidence of those considering whether or not to apply for these appointments and make their contribution to public life. As a regulator, I want to make it as simple and as easy as possible for a diverse range of people to step forward. I want them to have confidence that they will be treated fairly through an open process. I am aware that not enough people know about public appointments, or have the confidence to apply, and some of those involved find the process off-putting.
I have already heard from a wide range of people involved – potential applicants tell me that the process takes too long and some feel that it favours those used to public sector systems; government departments tell me that, while they do like clear rules and responsibilities, they find the 120-page code difficult to navigate. Ministers tell me that they want a more diverse range of suitable and appointable candidates from which they can make their final choice; and the independent assessors, accredited by me, who sit in on all appointments, tell me that sometimes departmental staff lack experience or sufficient time to give these appointments the attention they deserve. A big question is whether there actually needs to be direct regulatory involvement by an accredited assessor in every single appointment, as at present, or if a greater investment in the expertise of those making the appointments would be a better way to improve and professionalise the process – while at the same time making it more attractive to applicants.
Hand in hand with making it as easy as possible for those applying, I am aware that more people need to be made aware that these posts exist. Appointments to the boards of public bodies can be a really interesting and rewarding way to develop a career, or provide an opportunity to broaden experience or apply a specific skill in a new sector. I also know many who serve on public bodies see it as their way of “giving back” to society.
I have begun a formal consultation on my proposals for reform and would welcome views, particularly from those who know about appointments and recruitment. The ultimate test of a regulatory system is not whether or not there is a good process, but whether or not it delivers the right outcome – in this case, one that makes it easier to attract the widest and best possible field of candidates for these important posts.
My hope is that, at the end of my review, we will have a system which will be easier to understand and more approachable for applicants; and equally that the public can be properly assured that the very best people are being fairly appointed by ministers to carry out work of great public importance.
Sir David Normington, Commissioner for Public Appointments
The consultation ends on 28 September. Visit the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ website for more information about the Commissioner’s work or to download the consultation document.