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Regulating Public Appointments

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Monday 15 October 2018

The first half of my five year term as Public Appointments Commissioner has been an almost continuous period of transitions and changes- the introduction of a new regulatory framework and the Government’s new Governance Code in January 2017,  an unexpected general election and two changes of Cabinet Office minister dealing with appointments. The impact is discussed in my newly published annual report for 2017-18 ( I deal with my work championing diversity in a separate blog). Because of these changes, this is the first full year in which it has been possible to examine how the Code is working and to monitor the performance of departments in accordance to the Code and associated principles.

Looking ahead my priorities are set out in my annual report. I will provide provide independent assurance that the process is transparent, open and fair. I will also be focussing on ensuring that the interests of candidates are not neglected ( customer care). The two are, of course, connected. It is vital that people applying for appointments believe, and are assured, that everybody is being treated fairly on the basis of the same published criteria. It is important that candidates are treated considerately by departments, or else they will be discouraged from applying again.

It is important to avoid unnecessary delay. One of the most frequent complaints of both candidates and public bodies is how long many competitions take. The Government has accepted the goal of completing the process within three months of applications closing. This is not always easy because of fixing times for interviews etc. My office has been monitoring this three month goal and has begun to follow up with departments where the process is taking longer– which appears to be in a significant number of cases. We want to find out why and will be reporting both our findings and possible solutions.

There are two main differences from what happened before the end of 2016 under the old Code. First, I no longer appoint the chairs of the interview panels for high profile appointments. Second, we no longer apply strict ‘RAG’ ratings to determine any breaches of the Code since it is too inflexible and no longer appropriate.

Under the Government’s new Governance Code, I am taking a more graduated approach in my role as regulator, focussing on fielding questions from departments while competitions are under way, to help prevent any problems, and, then more formally, via a series of compliance visits undertaken by my team. These pre-planned audits have already started and involve examining how departments handle competitions from start to finish, looking at best practice and how it can be improved and developed. We will reporting on the main lessons in the hope of improving practice across Whitehall.

We will continue to investigate complaints if the complainant remains dissatisfied with the department’s response. The findings are discussed with departments and the published on my website as a decision notice. Many of these inquiries identify ways in which procedures can be improved, notably in record keeping. In addition, I will hold investigations into competitions where there is clear public concern expressed in Parliament and the media. This is part of the function of reassurance that the process is fair and open.

A full investigation — most notably this year in the case of two appointments to the board of the new Office for Students- made it possible to distinguish between justified and unjustified allegations, to highlight failings and to recommend improvements. In this case, there have been desirable, and proportionate, changes across Whitehall in due diligence to take account of the increased use of social media. This is to ensure that advisory interview panels and then ministers are fully briefed about the background to candidates. These investigations have also involved more contact with Commons select committees than in the past about whether a competition has been properly conducted.

So there is a combination of the advisory and informal and the more formal, and public, investigations, concentrating more on how to secure best practice rather than to ‘name and shame’ departments. In addition, my office intends to undertake a number of thematic reviews. Among the topics we may include are the independence of panel members and their role in exercising challenge in the assessment process; how departments attract a wide range of candidates; and mentoring and supporting them for positions on boards; a review of approaches to due diligence; and seeking feedback from candidates for public appointments. Again, the primary intention is to improve departmental practice, and to provide assurance to candidates and the public that the process is fair and open.