The public appointments system is under strain: it needs more clarity and transparency

In September, Peter Riddell will step down as Commissioner for Public Appointments after over five years in the role. In this post, which summarises comments made at a recent Unit seminar, he explains how the public appointments system is under strain, and how it might be improved. In particular, he calls for more clarity and transparency in both regulated and unregulated public appointments.

The public appointments system rests on two, at times, apparently contradictory principles — ministerial responsibility and selection by merit. These were set out both in the original Nolan report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 and in the government’s Governance Code in late 2016. Their existence side by side — along with selflessness, integrity, openness, diversity, assurance and fairness — can cause confusion. Ministers and their advisers understandably want to appoint those who share their values and views, while critics allege cronyism and an undermining of the merit principle.

In reality, as with so much in public life, the answer lies in a balance between the principles, as envisaged in the 1995 report: ‘responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers advised by committees which include independent members’. The system is inherently political, and always has been, but patronage is constrained. The process of competition acts as a filter to identify candidates assessed as appointable in relation to the published job and person specifications. It is then up to ministers to pick one of these candidates.

The integrity of the system is now under strain. The appointment of political allies has happened before and is consistent with the Governance Code. What is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of the government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.

My role as Commissioner for Public Appointments is to provide assurance — not least to parliament — that competitions work fairly and properly. In particular, that the interview panels contain a balance of representatives and include a robust independent element. In my speech to the Constitution Unit in late April I addressed some of the concerns which have been recently expressed and suggested some remedies. All are intended to be consistent with the principles of the Governance Code and most involve changes in behaviour rather than rules.

On the independence of panels, the Commissioner should be consulted by departments on the composition of interview panels for all significant appointments (an agreed list of chairs of bodies and regulators). This is to ensure a fair balance on such panels. Moreover, the Senior Independent Panel Members (who have no party or departmental links) on panels for significant appointments should have a specific duty of reporting to the Commissioner on the progress of these competitions, as some already do voluntarily. Select committees should also up their game by making it routine, rather than occasional, to consult the Commissioner ahead of a pre-appointment hearing. At present I provide an assessment of the integrity of the process (though never the choice of candidate) on my own initiative. Committees ought also to be more willing to summon secretaries of state to justify controversial selections rather than leave the candidate on their own.

With all the recent talk about conflicts of interest, there is a need for some realism and balance. Unlike civil servants, virtually all public appointments to the boards of arms-length bodies and the like are part-time, half are unpaid, and, therefore, appointees require additional sources of income. What is needed is transparency and openness as financial conflicts are addressed at the time of appointment and actively managed if appointed to the board. The growth of social media has meant that even the most casual tweet can lead to candidates being ruled out. What is needed is proportionality, relevance and a chance for candidates to explain their social media activity — though it is reasonable that, once appointed, members of boards should constrain their public comments on matters of controversy.

Other changes I am suggesting to strengthen the current system may be seen as more significant. There is a strong case for regulators concerned with ethics, standards and appointments in public life to be seen as more independent and to be treated differently from chairs and members of bodies with executive responsibilities implementing government policy — where ministers reasonably want the main say. Interview panels for such regulators could have a majority of independent members, while the relevant Commons committee could have a veto.

A Governance Code change would also be required to remove the provision for ministers to be able to appoint candidates judged unappointable by an interview panel. This provision has not so far been invoked and, if used, would undermine credibility of anyone appointed and the public body concerned.

There are two further causes of concern at present. First, aside from the list of arms-length bodies regulated by my office, and listed in a regularly updated Order in Council, there has recently been a growth in the number of unregulated appointments by ministers  tsars, reviewers, envoys, leaders of task forces. Many do important work, while short-term reviews should not come within my remit. But there is an urgent need to publish a list of these appointments together with how they are appointed. At present, there is a lack of transparency and clarity, and this distrust can affect regulated appointments too.

Second, there has been controversy over the decision by ministers not to reappoint some board members, notably of cultural and media bodies, against the wishes of their chairs. There is no automatic presumption in the Code that people will be reappointed and it is entirely a matter for ministers. Good governance suggests that a mixture of fresh appointments and reappointments is desirable. While no justification for a failure to reappoint is required under the Code, it might be desirable for ministers to offer an explanation when reappointment is recommended by the public body’s chair but not acted upon, not least to the appointee themselves.

In this blog I have highlighted worries and potential remedies. But there are also many positives for those who perform valuable public service on a wide range of bodies. My full speech, which is available to read on the website of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and on the Unit’s YouTube page, discusses other issues such as the all too frequent delays to competitions, the considerable progress made on diversity (especially in the appointment of women and ethnic minorities) and the resilient handling of appointments across Whitehall during the pandemic.

Peter Riddell spoke in much greater detail about these issues and afterwards participated in a lively Q&A at a recent Unit event, Regulating public appointments. The full event can be watched on our YouTube channel.

About the author

Peter Riddell has been Commissioner for Public Appointments since April 2016 and his term has recently been extended until this September to allow time for a successor to be appointed.