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Five years on from Grimstone

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Tuesday 20 April 2021

It is five years this spring since the publication of Gerry (now Lord) Grimstone’s review of the public appointments process – which coincided with my nomination as the independent Public Appointments Commissioner. A comparison of the Grimstone analysis and what has happened since then reveals some disappointed hopes but also that many of the inherent, and long-lasting, tensions of public appointments have endured.

The essence of the post-Nolan regime since the mid-1990s has been a balance between ministerial preference and open competition on merit. The exact form of the appointments and regulatory system has changed over time, and the Grimstone review marked a further stage in that evolution, making the Commissioner primarily a regulator rather than an active participant via their appointment of independent assessors chairing interview panels for major roles. Control over the Code on appointments moved from the Commissioner to the Government. Together with other changes – such as giving ministers the power to appoint candidates judged unappointable by interview panels – this led to fears by, amongst others, Sir David Normington, my predecessor, and by the Public Administration Select Committee that important safeguards were being removed and the balance was tilting too much towards ministers. 

In practice, some of these worries have not materialised partly because the Code was amended from the original Grimstone proposals before being finalised at the end of 2016. In particular, the principle of fairness was included which is crucial in judging whether competitions have been open to all candidates. The Commissioner has to be consulted, rather than just notified, on exemptions from competitions, while retaining the ability to investigate complaints and to audit the performance of departments. The Commissioner has therefore been far from a bystander and has been closely involved in seeking to provide assurance, not least to parliamentary committees, about the workings of the appointment system. It has been important to speak out when necessary, and to clarify the often misunderstood nature of the system for Parliament, the media and members of the public, alongside working with officials to ensure that the Code’s principles are followed.

Nonetheless, the critics of the Grimstone proposals were right that the potential was created to change the balance of the system. It has all depended on the spirit with which the Code (so far unchanged since its introduction in January 2017) has been implemented. Most of the time this has been broadly satisfactory thanks to a sensible attitude by most ministers and departments. So far, for example, no one assessed as unappointable has subsequently been appointed by a minister, and appointments without competition have largely been made for acceptable, practical reasons for a limited period to allow time for a normal competition to be held.

However, as I have previously pointed out, there have recently been some attempts to stretch, and indeed breach, the Code over the appointment of Senior Independent Panel Members and over the balance of independent and partisan members of interview panels.

One of the main themes in the Grimstone report was frustration about the time appointments take and he rightly stressed the importance of ‘customer care’, not least when candidates are left in the dark for uncertain periods. He originally proposed a three month limit from advertising a post to announcement of the outcome. This was widely seen as unrealistically tight and was amended to from the close of applications to announcement. Even that has proved unachievable in over a half of competitions analysed by OCPA and the position is worse than the Grimstone review found. The main single reason has been delays at the ministerial level after interviews. It is easy to point to the impact of frequent ministerial changes, general elections and, not least, the Covid pandemic. But this is unfinished business as the consequences that Grimstone identified from delays – “inefficient and can deter good, busy people from applying” – still apply today.

Another core theme of the Grimstone review was transparency to ensure that everyone would know at what stage a competition is and who is involved on interview panels. Good intentions have so far exceeded implementation as the website advertising appointments has not worked as well as hoped – though initiatives are now under way to remedy deficiencies. And departments have often struggled to keep up to date with information.

When the Grimstone review appeared five years ago, good progress had already been made on raising the number of women appointed and, at his suggestion, championing diversity was made a central part of the Commissioner’s role. Both the UK and Welsh Governments have sensible, realistic diversity strategies to increase participation. The latest figures, for 2019-20, show that women account for over half of appointments and reappointments and ethnic minorities for over 14 per cent, though the figures for those declaring disabilities remain disappointing. Again, good intentions are there with outreach events and, belatedly, a UK wide pilot mentoring scheme. But the high turnover of ministers has meant that the lead from the top has been lagging, and, most recently, the pandemic has put some initiatives on hold.  From my extensive contacts with under-represented groups, I believe much can be done – as well as to extend diversity in other ways, socially and geographically.

The use of remote working and virtual meetings during the Covid pandemic has shown the potential to involve a much wider range of people without the cost and inconvenience of travelling to all meetings. I have been struck by increasing support for having a mix of physical and remote meetings of public body boards.

In the end, much depends on the commitment of ministers – their willingness to become involved at all stages of the appointment process in a timely way which takes into account the interests of the candidates and of public bodies – whose chairs can often feel neglected as they seek to shape and lead their boards. The appointments system is, and always has been, inherently political as both the original Nolan report and Grimstone review recognised. It is clear to me that the challenge remains as always to find sufficient high quality candidates with a wide range of experience and backgrounds.