What is a public appointment?
Tuesday 27 June 2017
When I tell people that I regulate around 10,000 public appointments, they are generally surprised by the number. Then comes the hard part, explaining what counts as a public appointment, and what does not. As the Cabinet Office admits, there is no precise definition. Broadly, such appointments are made by ministers, or in their name, to public bodies and advisory committees– hence the often used terms of arm’s-length bodies or the more dated quangos. Taking up a public appointment can be personally satisfying and rewarding.
Before looking at what is included, it may be more helpful to start with what is excluded. The civil service and the diplomatic service, the armed forces, the intelligence agencies and the judiciary (covered since 2006 by the Judicial Appointments Commission) are not regarded as public appointments in this sense.
That leaves a large number of very different bodies and public office holders covering a wide range of government activity and society in the UK. The easiest to define are executive bodies which deliver a wide range of public services but which operate at arm’s length from operational control by ministers or Whitehall departments. These range from ACAS ( the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), the BBC, the Arts Council, UK Sport, the main national museums and galleries, the Environment Agency, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Network Rail to a wide range of NHS bodies. The list includes non-ministerial departments such as the Charities Commission. There are a wide range of advisory committees and regulators, covering all the main utilities, Food Standards and Care Quality as well as constitutional, legal and criminal justice issues, from inspection of terrorism legislation, via prisoners and probation, to the police. Not all public appointments are regulated by my Office, but the vast majority are, and are listed in an Order in Council, most recently in December 2016. This is revised from time to time to take account of closures, mergers, changes of status and new creations. These appointments are UK wide but the Scottish and Welsh governments and the Northern Ireland executive have their own arrangements for making appointments that are devolved to each jurisdiction ( and they have their own regulators, though I am also the regulator for Welsh Government appointments).
Together these advisory and executive non-departmental bodies account for more than a third of the roughly 2,200 appointments each year which are regulated by my Office. Nearly a fifth are NHS bodies, including local health trusts which run hospitals and the like. Roughly a half are designated as ‘other’– and these include members of Independent Monitoring Boards, volunteers who monitor the welfare of prisoners, as well as members of parole boards. Almost all the local health trusts and other category appointments are not made directly by ministers but by arm’s length bodies under formally delegated powers.
The role of public appointees varies enormously but members of executive and advisory bodies work like the chairs and non-executives of public companies, though, of course, their precise legal responsibilities and accountability are different. The boards agree a broad strategy and direction for the bodies, overseeing performance and financial targets, and ensuring that the organisation works in the public interest. The remuneration of chairs and members of public bodies is set by departments.
For the past 22 years– since the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life— the process of appointment has been standard. Appointments are made by ministers (or in their name for over half the appointments) and are the result of open competition on the basis of merit. Competitions are run by departments and appointments are publicly advertised– nowadays on the website of the Cabinet Office’s Centre for Public Appointments and sometimes in the media. This lays down a timetable for people to apply. Under welcome new transparency arrangements, applicants can track the main stages of an appointment and find out who is on the interview panel before applying. This will allow any delays in the process to be clear and public. A frequent complaint of applicants is that they do not know what is happening, particularly after they have been interviewed. There is now a goal of no more than three months between the closure of applications and the announcement of a decision. I am closely monitoring performance here.
Ministers are involved at every stage of the process and can suggest names themselves. But under the fairness principle for public appointments in the Governance Code, all applicants should be considered on the same basis. Sometimes headhunters are involved to try and find suitable candidates. After the close of applications, what is known as a sift process is carried out to produce a list of those who will be interviewed. This involves looking at how far applicants meet the criteria laid down in the original advertisement for the post. Depending on the number of applicants, a long list of candidates is drawn up for further consideration, or sometimes just a short list of candidates for interview. Advisory Assessment Panels, appointed by ministers, are usually chaired by a senior civil servant from the department sponsoring the public body and will always include an independent member.
For defined significant appointments. generally the chairs of bodies or leading office holders such as regulators- a Senior Independent Panel Member separate from the department and the public body is appointed to provide an outside, independent perspective and additional assurance. I am consulted on each SIPM appointment and the SIPM is also required to have experience in senior recruitment.
After an interview of around 45 minutes or so, the panel will then consider which of the short-listed candidates is appointable, which can vary from none (which is not unknown and usually leads to a fresh competition) to two or three, or occasionally more. It all depends on the strength of the candidates. A report is then sent to the relevant minister giving the panel’s assessment of each of the candidates. Unless a minister specifically requests, appointable candidates are not listed in order of preference. The minister, who can meet candidates, then chooses who should be appointed or makes a recommendation to the Prime Minister.
In some cases, generally high profile posts on a publicly disclosed list, the preferred candidate must go before a Commons Select Committee in what is known as pre-appointment hearing to assess their suitability for the post. Unlike the US Senate’s formal veto powers over certain appointments, Select Committee reports are advisory. Committees cannot block an appointment, and ministers can, and have, pushed through an appointment despite a hostile report. In other cases, a candidate has withdrawn in face of criticism. Both are, however, very rare and have only applied to the chairs of bodies or regulators, not ordinary members of boards.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments does not appoint people to public bodies. Unlike the Civil Service Commissioners, I do not chair or sit on interview panels. My main function is to regulate the process, working both behind the scenes and publicly to ensure that appointments conform to the public appointment principles and to the Governance Code. My other roles of reporting, monitoring and listening to complaints are listed on my website. I have produced a series of blogs like this one to explain the process and to highlight current issues. One of my enhanced roles is to champion diversity.I believe it is very important that as wide a range of people as possible apply to, and are selected for, the boards of bodies which serve the public in so many ways.