Examination of witness (Questions 20 -
WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2000
20. Can I just say, I think that is very useful,
and I think the anecdotal evidence that I have got would back
up what you are saying, that there are people who are politically
active who feel that they would be disbarred, and, I think, the
point that you make, if you make that more strongly then all the
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think my report and what
I have said had quite a lot of media attention. I stand on platforms
and say so many very positive things, it does not quite attract
the same media attention. But I really do stand on platforms and
say, "Absolutely, if you are politically active and you have
all this experience, please come forward," I really do.
21. I would be very interested if you could
say a little bit more, there is something in the report, about
a crucial sentence, actually, in the Foreword, where you say:
"It has been clear for some time that the merit principle
has been under pressure, primarily from departments' attempts
to meet equal opportunities targets and satisfy the requirement
for Ministerial choice, ..." First of all, do you think we
should develop a comprehensive scheme to remove ministerial choice
from a wide range of appointments?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have to say, no; it is not
for me to have that view. I have not thought about it. Therefore,
the very first principle is Ministers' right to appoint, and if
Ministers' right to appoint is taken away it is unlikely that
those appointments will then come under my regulation. There are,
as you know, some 33,000 to 35,000 public appointments, ministerial
appointments, and some 100,000 people who give public service,
but only 12,500 come under my remit, and if you took some of those
away then fewer would be regulated in this way.
22. If you link that to what was found in the
MORI report, it is a pretty bleak picture; the MORI report is
saying that most people think these appointments are politically
derived. Indeed, your earlier report on NHS Trusts, although very
limited in scope, appeared to support that; you agree that the
system is under pressure, but you are not able to come forward
with any clear-cut or comprehensive proposal for dealing with
it because you agree with the fundamental principle that Ministers
should have the final choice?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Not quite.
23. Tell me where I have got that wrong?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think I do have, together
with others, ways of improving the process, and the MORI report,
whilst bleak, I think really requires an awful lot of work and
information to get to people who have no information, in a way
that is not patronising, or so high-faluting no-one can understand
it, and I think a great deal can be done about that. So I do think
that a great deal can be done. In the MORI report, people said
they wanted a fair and open process, and they wanted people who
could do the job, above all; and once they knew there was a regulated
process they took comfort in the fact, they said, "Oh, we
didn't know that, we just made assumptions." I think, in
MORI, as with elsewhere, people take headlines that refer to all
sorts of appointments, from special advisers and task forces through
to all sorts of appointments, and make the assumption that all
appointments are the same and all of these appointments are public
appointments. On the issue of merit, which you said that I had
raised in my Foreword, I do think that we need to look at merit
in a very different way. I think that merit has been somewhat
limited historically in its use, and merit is somehow seen as
having only this kind of experience, or these kinds of bits of
paper qualifications, and people with that somehow are more meritorious.
And the work that we asked Val Hammond, at Roffey Park, to do
was to look at how can we look at merit, and she, and others,
Professor Theresa Rees, in Cardiff, also, said, merit is really
a socially constructed concept, rather than just a literal translation.
So what I am doing on that is working with others to really change
the guidance, and, rather than say here are three things new about
merit, to write the guidance in such a way that merit can be understood
in a much broader way, all the way through the process.
24. Have you discussed that suggestion with
the Neill Committee?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have talked to the Neill
Committee, and I have talked to Government Departments and consulted
on this quite widely, to say we need to look at broadening the
concept of merit, but not, as someone suggested to me, dumbing
down the process.
25. Can you give us some indication of the response
you are getting from Ministers and Departments?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Very positive; because Departments,
I think, are often in a difficult situation, of trying to look
at the targets they are endeavouring to meet, and panels looking
at the targets they are endeavouring to meet, and then looking
at people who have tremendous potential and a background and track
record in quite a different field, that might not be the first
thing that comes to mind of those people on the panel. So we need
to find a way to broaden the thinking of people when they are
making those selections to send to Ministers.
Mr Trend: Can I come back to the MORI research,
and your recognition was low, it is down in the sort of percentage
that we, as Members of Parliament, are familiar with, in popularity
Mr Lepper: Some Members of Parliament.
26. As a species, we vie with lawyers and chartered
accountants at under 10 per cent; but you were beaten by the Consultative
User Group on the National Transport Strategy, this must have
been slightly depressing. Was this roughly what you thought would
be the result; did you think that was what was going to happen?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes. I did not know what the
result would be, but I did not think that if I said the Commissioner
for Public Appointments, or OCPA, the Office of the Commissioner
for Public Appointments, anybody would know what that was, because
when I first took up this role people said, "You're going
to be a what?" And so I recognised it was not going to be
overwhelmingly high. But I have found, in the last 18 months,
well, 20 months, since I have been doing this role, quite a change
in recognition. And what I wanted to do with MORI was to benchmark.
How can we know we have improved unless we have taken stock of
what the view is now, and what people's concerns are about what
needs to be improved; and so that, in a way, sets the agenda for
me, but also for a whole range of other people in the Public Appointments
Unit, in Government Departments and others, to say these are the
things we have to do something about.
27. Do you think part of this was a perception
that politics itself is suffering from some malaise, and, therefore,
anything with a `p' in it is likely to be part of that malaise?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I do not know. I think it says
something about public service, that, for a whole range of reasons,
people who traditionally gave public service might not have the
time or inclination to do so now. Certainly, organisations who
have gone into all the `re-ing' that has been going on in organisations;
that is the sort of reforming, re-engineering, restructuring,
means that organisations have flattened and there are fewer people
with any spare capacity to do anything. And younger people do
not know much about public service. I know that you might well
know 50 young people who know a lot. But, during Public Service
Week, I have just been to Manchester, to Belfast, to Glasgow,
to Edinburgh, I was in Wrexham, and there was an event in Cardiff.
In Scotland I met with some young people from the Youth Parliament,
and the youth sector, and they were saying, "Well, how do
we know about this? It isn't in our citizenship or civics classes
in school; we don't know about these kinds of things." So
I think what needs to be done is not so much a big marketing or
PR job but a really long-term, `surround the goal' strategy, of
making people more aware how they might give public service, and
making it easier for them to come forward and do so, from all
different walks of life and at all stages in life.
28. You suggest in your report that it might
be part of the National Curriculum. I dare say lots and lots of
bodies wish to have knowledge about themselves made part of the
National Curriculum, I do not think there is a Department somewhere
which sifts these through, and civics is taught in some schools
these days. Have you tried to advance your claim that it should
be part of the National Curriculum, in a particular, crafty way?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes. It is not so much that
people should know about this office, but that people should know
about public service. And one of the things we did in Manchester,
at the opening of Public Service Week, was to invite sixth-formers
to come and take part in being on a board; so we had a number
of case studiesand, to Members who are interested, I am
very happy to send you the case studiesand you sat down,
seven or eight people round a table, and the case study said,
"You are on a board, you are on a rent assessment panel,
you are a school governor; and this is the issue, discuss and
come up with something." And afterwards they were saying,
"So that's what it's about; we thought it was all about speaking
through the Chair, going to committees, reading difficult papers,"
and what we were saying was, it is actually about coming to commonsense
understanding of issues that are going to affect people in their
communities and coming up with ways of deciding how to do something
29. We have so many `weeks', these days, each
adorned with a pretty ribbon. I sometimes wonder ifdid
you feel that your Public Service Week was worthwhile, you may
do it again; what did you learn from it?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I do feel it was worthwhile.
If I can just say, in relation to those case studies, one of the
things that we did, as we went round, was to have seminars of
people who have an interest in either disability, race or gender,
and a whole range of people, to discuss what we could do to make
public service easier, more accessible, and so on; so part of
it was about listening. And there have been suggestions, in relation
to employers, that we should be saying to some of the big employers,
as well as having Investors In People, you could have something
that says, "Here's a stamp you can put on," and have
a badge, to say, "We support, enable our employees to go
out and give public service." But someone also suggested
that we take these case studies and make them more available for
teachers, in teaching, not just in civics, but in how to answer
difficult questions. So we are going to look at a whole range
of suggestions. And I recognise that there are lots of `weeks',
because I buy all the badges and the pins, every week.
30. Are you intending to make this an annual
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I hope so. I hope so; because
the results of what we did were so very positive. But what I need
to do now, with colleagues from the Public Appointments Unit,
and then talking to wider groups, the Commission for Racial Equality,
the Disability Rights Commission and the EOC, and others, is to
say, of these things, what is do-able and how might we actually
put some of them into practice, before we go out and exhort yet
more people to come forward.
31. These shadowing projects, are these set
up by you, are you running these 120, your office is administering
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes.
32. Is that ongoing, will there be more, or
is that part of the `week'?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) It was part of the `week',
but in other countries they did not start till after the `week',
and what I did was write to the Chairs of all the bodies that
come under my remit and say, "I am hoping to let people who
are interested to know more about public appointments, but have
not yet applied for anything, have a feeling about what boards
are about. Would you be prepared to have someone attend a board
meeting, or shadow you or a board member?" And I was overwhelmed
by the number of people who wrote back and said, "Absolutely;
yes." And if they said, "Look, our meetings will be
rather boring, because they're technical, but we will set up a
special meeting." Then I wrote to lots of different groups,
saying, "Are there any people there who would like to know
more about public appointments, and be shadows?" So, once
we have done this piece of work, I expect up to a couple of hundred
people will shadow. We have got questionnaires for both, that
say, "How was it for you?" and "Will you go forward?"
and "Are there things you still think you need to know and
do more about?" Once we evaluate them, to see if it is successful,
then we might look to see how, particularly for groups that are
so underrepresented, we might continue; but we need to assess
its success first.
33. According to the MORI work, the public clearly
think that public appointments are murky. Was there any sense
of how the public regarded your office?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) The sense was, they did not
know about it.
34. I accept that.
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) When it was explained to them,
they said, "Well, why didn't we know anything about it?"
35. And you feel they believe you? I ask that
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Of course, I was not there.
MORI ran it, and we were able to read transcripts about the views
36. And when you go on these `weeks' and meet
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) When I go on the `weeks' and
meet people; yes, I think that people generally are glad that
there is a proper regulatory body that is there to ensure there
is a fair process, and that they have somewhere to complain to
if they do not think they were treated well.
37. Another thing you mention, which you think
might, I think, if I am interpreting it right, encourage people,
is remuneration, increasing remuneration; how does that work,
in your mind?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) If I may, I will answer it
in two parts. The first is to say that my job is the process,
to regulate the process, and not to make suggestions about how
much people should be paid, or if they should be paid. However,
what I can say, in listening to people about what prevents them
coming forward, is that people have come to me and said, "It's
actually very difficult for me to do this, because I'd lose my
disability pension; so it's very difficult for me to do this,
unless there are things there that would help me do it."
And others, who say, "I can't do it, because I'm a small
business, a self-employed person, and my business would suffer."
No-one has suggested, ever, to me that anyone should be paid large
amounts of money, everyone says, with the public service ethos,
of course, that must be taken into account, and some people say,
of course, there should be no money at all; however, others say,
that precludes some people applying. So I can only report what
people say to me. But then it is a matter not for me, because
my role finishes once people are appointed; but it is a matter
for me, I think, to report what I hear, in the right places, and
I have done so to Government Departments.
38. I am sure these are very useful, anecdotal
observations from someone who is very close to this. Can I ask,
finally, does it ever strike you, with any of these bodies, particularly
the more contentious ones, that it might be simpler and clearer
to elect the bodies, rather than to appoint them; are there any
examples of that, that you can think of?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) No. I do not know of any bodies
of the kind that come under me, where people are elected; of course,
people who have been appointed sometimes under their Orders then
elect their Chair, so an election takes place within. But, so
far, the bodies that I oversee are ones where the job criteria
is advertised in one of a number of ways, people apply and then
are selected on merit.
39. I was only asking for anecdotal observations
of if, in going through numbers of these bodies, you ever thought
it might be better for these bodies to be publicly elected, rather
than to be appointed?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) This may not be the answer
you would be wanting to hear, but only people who have been politically
elected have suggested to me that that is a good idea; the others
say definitely not, in the main.