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Transparency in Public Appointments

Blog post by Peter Riddell

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Nothing annoys applicants for public appointments more than long, and unexplained, delays between an interview and a decision. That can also deter good candidates from applying. The problem is not new, and is unlikely to disappear completely.

Delays can be administrative or reflect the desire of ministers, special advisers and often 10 Downing Street to have their say. Whatever the reason, there is a tendency to take insufficient account of the interests and concerns of the candidates themselves. But, fortunately, the new transparency arrangements that the Cabinet Office has recently introduced offer a way of at least monitoring what is happening.

As Public Appointments Commissioner, I see one of my roles as looking after the interests of candidates. Sir David Normington, my predecessor, took a similar view in his annual report when he drew attention to the inordinate time some competitions take. In his review of public appointments, Sir Gerry Grimstone argued that departments should regard ‘customer care’ as an important part of the process. Ideally, he argued, ‘the aim should always be to conclude the process within three months of a competition opening’. In its response, the Government accepted this recommendation and noted that the new transparency arrangements proposed by Sir Gerry would ensure that departments are held to account on this aspect of their performance.

In the subsequent debate, worries were widely expressed by departments and by those involved in interviews that this timetable might be too inflexible. Summer and Christmas holidays had to be taken into account as well as securing time in the diaries of busy people who make up appointment panels.

So the final version of the Governance Code published in mid-December put forward a slightly longer timetable, in effect a cushion of three to four weeks between a competition being advertised and the closing date for applications. So, ‘ideally the aim should always be to conclude the process within three months of a competition closing’.

This change in timing was reasonable because the new transparency arrangements which the Cabinet Office brought in late last year ensure not only that all public appointments are advertised with full openness about the composition of the interview/advisory assessment panel and the selection process, but also that ‘real time data; should be published on the progress of individual competitions. ‘This will enable effective scrutiny and act as a mechanism to hold departments to account for the time taken to run an appointments process’. I applaud what the Cabinet Office has done to ensure that the new transparency system has started promptly and well, and has applied across Whitehall.

One of the beneficial side effects which I am hoping for from the new transparency arrangements is that Departments will place greater emphasis both on planning competitions well in advance of vacancies occurring and on the methods they intend to use to attract a strong and diverse field before they launch a competition.

Just this month I have seen two cases of long delays– one involving a five and a half month gap between the competition closing and the announcement of the appointment, and another a six and a half month delay so far. In the first case, there was nearly a three month interval between the panel’s report and recommendation on appointable candidates being submitted and a ministerial decision, while in the latter case, it was four months.

In the latter case, the chair of the interview panel had specifically expressed the hope that it would be possible to take a final decision fairly quickly since it would be a shame to lose one of the two appointable candidates at this point. These were prescient words since in the long time since the interview stage, one of the appointable candidates had decided to withdraw after taking up a number of other roles. This understandable response shows the dangers of delay. I do not intend to name the public body or the department involved since a fresh competition has now been launched. The department concerned accepts that the delay was unacceptable and has taken remedial action.

Fortunately, from now onwards, all can now follow the progress of competitions. As regulator, I will be able to ask questions– notably about the time being taken and, if after inquiries, I find there have been unreasonable delays, I will highlight them. My hope is that transparency will achieve the intended result of producing more timely appointments processes and less frustration for candidates– so that more people will want to apply.