Thursday 4 June 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted public appointments- though the pattern of response across Whitehall has varied considerably. Some departments have put all or most competitions on hold; others are pressing ahead, in some or most cases, with remote interviews. The use of video technology points to the way ahead now as the Government and the country move gradually to relax restrictions, though with social distancing still in place and the return of face-to-face meetings and interviews unlikely for some time.
I have been very sympathetic to requests by departments to freeze competitions and to extend the tenure of current incumbents, or to make temporary interim appointments, and my office has speedily processed such submissions. There are several reasonable factors. In some cases, key officials involved in appointmexnts or in interviewing have been transferred into direct COVID-19 response work. In other cases, the public bodies have been themselves, directly dealing with the consequences of the pandemic and it has been thought right to retain experienced chairs and board members. More generally, some ministers and departments have doubted whether it is possible at present to attract sufficient high-quality candidates and to organise assessment and interview panels.
This response, while understandable, can only be temporary. There are parallels in some ways to the suspension of public appointment decisions during the ‘purdah’ period of general election campaigns and often the few weeks afterwards as new ministers settle in. Indeed, the pandemic has followed the disruption caused by two general elections and a change of Prime Minister in the past three years. The danger is of creating a backlog later in the year when temporary extensions expire coinciding with the regular pattern of appointments and reappointments.
No one expects an early return to the pre-March system of face-to-face interviews but there is an urgent need to get competitions going again on a virtual/remote basis. As Commissioner, my responsibilities are to ensure that appointments are made on the basis of fair and open competition, while highlighting, as now, evidence of good practice.
In particular, there are encouraging examples of campaigns already completed or now under way in several departments. Defra has recently completed – and highlighted on Twitter – a competition for appointments to the boards of National Parks. Defra reports a positive response from interview panels and is seeking feedback from candidates. Similarly, DCMS reports that its platform for video conferencing has worked well for both panels and candidates. This has required not only getting the technology right but also prior planning such as allowing more time between interviews and deciding beforehand which panel members will ask which questions (good practice in any case) to ensure interviews run smoothly to time. It is also important to have precise conversations with those chosen for interviews so that they understand what is going to happen and that everyone will be treated on the same basis. Remote interviews could be daunting for candidates from under-represented groups who are less familiar with selection procedures. It is important that achieving greater diversity across the range of appointments should not be neglected.
The Home Office tested a number of possible platforms for recent interviews before deciding to proceed with Skype (audio only) as this was accessible for all candidates and provided the most stable connection. This was used for a high-profile Chair campaign and the Home Office reports that both the panel and candidates were satisfied with the seamlessness of the process. The Home Secretary subsequently made an appointment based on this approach and more campaigns are planned in this way. Other departments – Justice, Health and Social Care, and Work and Pensions – have also used video conferencing in the appointments process.
I have recently written to all Permanent Secretaries highlighting these initiatives which, I hope, can now be more widely applied so that a future logjam of appointments to the boards of public bodies can be minimised or averted.