Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 40 - 59)



Mr White

  40. There has been debate in this country, for probably about a decade or more now, about the role of politicians, and following on from Michael's question about somehow, if you put it to civil servants or officers or a professional body, you take the vested interest out of it, and it comes back to the point you made in your Foreword about the merit principle being under threat from the role of Ministers. Is that a valid criticism, that there is too much of the democratic side, and that we ought to have a bit more of democratic deficit?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have never heard anyone suggest that we should have more democratic deficit, and I certainly would not be a person to suggest it, or personally support it. But people do not say, certainly to me, that they want to see more civil servants and officers running things, as opposed to politicians; what they are saying is, it is important that lay people come in, who are not civil servants, officers or politicians, but can be part of a body, who can make a contribution, that comes from the lay community.

  41. I have got a couple of questions on the processes you use, and I am going to ask a question on the auditors and independent assessors and the kitemark. Can I start with the independent assessors? Can you just define the role of the independent assessor, how they are appointed, and how you define the independent element of the independent assessors, what are they independent of?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) The independent assessors are people who are asked to sit on, in the main, panels for executive bodies, who are independent of that Government Department, and independent of the body that is being interviewed for, who have an understanding of what the proper process should be. And they do one of two things, they either observe and give a good housekeeping seal of approval that says, "This was done properly," or they observe and take part in the process, interviewing as an additional person, and different Government Departments use them differently. So that is one major role, on executive bodies. On advisory bodies, because of proportionality, not everyone is interviewed in that same long process, then the role of the independent assessor is to oversee the whole process, look at all the paperwork, look at what was done, and say, "Yes, this has been done properly, and all the proper stages were taken account of." They are intended to be independent of the body and not a member of that Department. How are they selected; well, in a variety of ways, because Government Departments have traditionally selected their independents in a whole range of ways, including the tapping on the shoulder, to say, "Would you like to be an independent assessor?", because there was no particular guidance, other than there should be independent scrutiny, as to how it should be done. I have taken a particular interest in the independent assessors, as I think you remember, and so, having consulted very widely about independent assessors, how they are appointed, and so on, I am about to do two things, with the support and agreement of Government Departments, Permanent Secretaries, and so on. First of all, working with Government Departments, we are looking at best practice and producing guidance about how independent assessors should be sought, appointed, trained, assessed and make their contribution, and that Government Departments will continue, in the main, to find their independent assessors but following a guidance, and that independent assessors will have a handbook, a guidebook, about what their role is all about. The second thing I am going to do is set up a small, independent register of independents, that I will be advertising for, for the small Departments who have no possibility of, they have a few appointments and generally they have a hard time finding, independent assessors. So I will be practising what I preach, by myself advertising for, against criteria, selecting and ensuring that there is proper training, and that my office will take a responsibility for training, in relation to independent assessors, setting out what should be done.

  42. How do you ensure that they actually conform to common standards?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) This, of course, is a difficulty, because each Government Department chooses their own and does it in their own way; and, therefore, I was concerned that there was not a broadly coherent way of me being able to give assurance that independent assessors are all doing their proper job, because, of course, they do not belong to me, they sit within Government Departments. And so, I think, how I am ensuring it, and as I know you will ask me this question the next time I came to see you, have I done it, and am I satisfied it is working? I am working quite hard, with three people in my office, in particular, working very hard, at consulting. On Monday of next week, we have a meeting with a number of independent assessors, drawn from a wide range of places, to look at what are the things we need to get most right. And by April I hope to have something I could very happily show you, that would say, "This is how we are ensuring a quality standard."

  43. The cynic in me would say, well, is not that what a personnel officer does in a private company, and they do not have the kinds of problems that require an independent assessor, they just get the personnel function working properly?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) So, are you suggesting we do not have independent assessors?

  44. I am saying that, if you look in the private sector, the issues of conflicts of interest are dealt with in a different way, that is not necessarily as bureaucratic or as cumbersome, that allows these kinds of issues to be addressed. My question is, have you looked at the private sector, and, if so, what lessons can we learn; and do we need the independent assessor, should it not be combined with the personnel function?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes, I have looked at the private sector, and talked to the private, the voluntary and other sectors about what they do and how they do it. Of course, these appointments, which are ministerial appointments, the process is not generally led by personnel specialists, it is led by people within an office who are not personnel people.

  45. Is not that part of the problem?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) That is not for me. Can I say that I know that there has been an enormous amount of work recently, in particular by the Cabinet Office Public Appointments Unit, and a new senior civil servant has been appointed to do a range of things, including, my understanding is, a lot of work on diversity, and a lot of work on best practice and improving the process. And my office is working with him and his staff to try to ensure, because, of course, that is their role and not mine, that that works. But, in relation to independent assessors, we are back to the public perception, and Mr Trend's point about, if the public do not feel there is an independent person there, overseeing this and saying, "I can stand up and say this was done properly;" then the figures might be even worse.

  46. Can I just go on to another conflict of interest. You have appointed Pricewaterhouse and Ernst & Young to do various things, but auditors actually get a lot of money from these other services, and does not that provision of services that they are looking at, the consultancy work, conflict with their role of auditing?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I am not sure I wholly understand the question in relation to what I would use them for.

  47. You use Ernst & Young to audit yourself?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Absolutely right[1].

  48. And then you use them to do other services as well?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) No. I use them in relation to auditing and the complaints process, which is part of the audit process; if someone complains about something and I want a detailed audit done on the records, I would use Ernst & Young.

  49. But these companies—I am trying not to be specific—sell services to these other Departments as well, consultancy services, and is not that a conflict of interest, when you are trying to do an investigation and they are trying to sell consultancy services as well?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Certainly, in all of the presentations to me and the person from the Treasury who is there with us, and other members of my office, when we did the selection and final sifting, and so on, all those who came through the process had to demonstrate how they would work with propriety, and be able to demonstrate that there was no selling on of consultancy services in relation to any of the work they were doing for us. And that is something that we will be auditing, in their relation with us.

Mr Lepper

  50. Dame Rennie, we have touched already on ministerial involvement in appointments, and over much of this year this Committee has concerned itself from time to time with the Ministerial Code, and I believe that you actually wrote to the Committee, in June, making some comments on one particular section of the Ministerial Code, Section 51, which relates to appointments made by Ministers. I wonder if you could just use this opportunity, of your return to us today, to say a little more about why you wrote to us on that topic?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I was invited to see if I would want to make any contribution. I was concerned, in terms of openness and transparency, that part of what I need to be able to do, in my assurance to the public, is to say, "This is the process, there are seven steps to it," or eight steps to it, or ten steps, "and this is what is happening." If additional steps are added in, if, for example, it is going to a Minister, or it is going to the Prime Minister's office, then I would want to be able to see that this is known in advance and everyone knows this is part of the process. Certainly, some of the people who complain and say, "Where has my appointment gone to?" want to know in advance the stages that it is going to go through; and I think what I was urging was that the final stages of the process should be as evident as the beginning stages, and that I would hope that that might be taken into account in the Ministerial Code.

  51. Thank you for that. Is that an issue that you have raised, for instance, with the Cabinet Office?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) It is certainly an issue that, when asked to describe to you one of the things that might be useful, I had certainly shared it. It is not the biggest problem on my agenda, as it were, it is more an opportunity to demonstrate openness than something that I see as an active problem at the moment.

  52. Can I just ask something about complaints. Michael Trend referred to the unflattering MORI findings, perhaps, about recognition, and yet it is interesting that the number of direct complaints that you have received, I think, has gone up by something like eight times between 1997 and 1999, five direct complaints in 1997-98 up to 38. And yet there seems to be a conflict here between the lack of public recognition, represented by the MORI survey, and yet more people bringing complaints to your attention?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes; indeed, I would say that the reason people are complaining is because they now know about us, and I suppose I need to demonstrate the difference between the two. I think the general public do not know necessarily what a public appointment is, separate from many other appointments, and they do not know necessarily that it is regulated in the way that it is, and I think a great deal needs to be done. In relation to people applying and complaining, following a meeting with the Neill Committee and, I believe, with this Committee, one of the things I thought was a useful thing to do was to produce a leaflet that goes into every pack, from every Government office, when someone applies to an advertisement and says, "I'd like to be considered for...; please send me this pack." Each Government Department now has a pile of these complaints leaflets, or leaflets that say, from me, "This is the proper process you, as a member of the public, need to know, these are the principles that are being applied, and if you are not happy about the process this is where you come to complain." So, in a sense, those people who are interested to apply now have a bit of paper that tells them what should be done and where to go if they are not happy; but the general public, of course, do not have that.

  53. What do you see as the likely consequences for this increase in complaints, if it were to continue, on the way in which you work, as Commissioner, your office works?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) In relation to the complaints we get, they are many and varied, sometimes they are quite straightforward requests for, "I believe I was the best person, and I don't see why I wasn't appointed because I now know who has been appointed and I don't think they're as good as I am, and, therefore, is there anything funny going on here?" And I am able, quite quickly, to gather the papers, and with the Department, go through it and I am able to give an assurance. Or if not, I then go back and do a bit more digging. And I may say, "There are gaps in the paperwork, I can't give you the complete assurance." It is fairly straightforward. And, with those fairly straightforward ones, as part of my work, working with Departments and with the best practice people in the Cabinet Office secretariat, I am saying, when I meet them on a regular basis, "These are the things that are coming up again and again that need to be improved, so please sort it." And I produced two bulletins, one for all those in the Government offices who manage these processes, to say, "These are the latest things I'm concerned about, so please pay attention," and one for independent assessors, a bulletin called `The Sentinel', it is something printed on our computer in-house, not a grand thing, but saying, "Here are the complaints that are coming up, please be vigilant; please ensure they don't happen." So I think that a great deal can be done, not just to let them drift but to work together with others to improve. But there are other complaints, that take a great deal of time. There are the more complex complaints, indeed, one complaint I have had recently went back before Nolan, and had many things they had wanted to draw to my attention. That has taken a great deal of work and a great of time from my office. So there are many more complex complaints. Sometimes I have felt and believed it has been important to do two things. One is to go and see that complainant, wherever they happen to be, if it is easier for them, to come to me, or, in the case of Scotland or Northern Ireland, I go there, and really listen to what is underneath this and what really needs to be satisfied, and I have done that a number of times. Or, if I think that it is something that is going to require such assurance to the complainant, as Mr White had said, in working with my auditors, I might say to my auditors, "Work with me on this, so that when I go to this complainant I've got an absolutely solid piece of evidence that they will be able to take assurance from." And so it is the complexity, rather than the rising number, that concerns me.

  54. Rather than the volume?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Because the volume, I think, is something that—so far, this year, I have had 19 complaints, to me directly, but, I think, working with Departments to quality assure we reduce the shorter-term ones, but the longer-terms ones sometimes take many, many weeks and a great deal of work.

  55. So we should beware of simply judging in terms of numbers of complaints?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Absolutely.

  56. It is the nature that is really important?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes.

  Mr Lepper: Could I ask just one, final, very perhaps trivial question, I am not sure. Looking at the programme for Public Service Week, last week, you had, quite rightly, events in Belfast, in Scotland, in Cardiff, in Wrexham and Manchester.

  Mr Tyrie: But what about your constituency, David?

Mr Lepper

  57. I was not going to be so crass as to mention my own constituency, Chairman; but not London or the South of England. Were there reasons for that, or is it sheer chance?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Not entirely. Manchester, because it is centrally situated in the country; and for people who come from outside London there is often a great deal of complaint that everything seems to happen in the South and in London. I had hoped, indeed, to have one in the South and one in Manchester, but actually getting that organised proved difficult, but when the choice came to have just the one, it seemed to me appropriate, and it is my choice, to say the North had it.

  58. I was not going to do an advertisement for any particular venue, Chairman, but I am interested in what you said about the charge that sometimes things do centre on London and the South, I did wonder whether there was that thinking behind the choice of venues.
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) The Manchester Evening News, interestingly, the first question the reporter there asked me was, "Is it because there are more problems here that you come here?" It is a mind set. I was able to say, "Absolutely not," because Manchester has a reputation for doing interesting things, working in the community, the whole range of things, and a lot of interesting things were happening in Manchester, and it seemed good to build on them, as, indeed, there are in many other places.

  Mr Lepper: She said, diplomatically.

Mr Tyrie

  59. I would like to end with two, quick questions. One is, you said that lack of awareness of what you do is a major problem; are not, ultimately, the only people who can give you that kind of profile and awareness Ministers? It is when very senior Ministers mention your work that you are likely to get the kind of coverage that is required, and that public service weeks are a step forward but they are only going to take you a very small part of the way. Have you considered asking senior Ministers to launch some sort of campaign to encourage more people to come forward in their relevant Departments, for selection?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think there were two things in there, and I am sure you will put me straight if I have got them wrong. The one is knowing about me and my work, and the other is about public appointments.

1   Ernst & Young were contracted by OCPA until the 31 March 2000. Subsequently PriceWaterhouseCoopers were appointed to undertake audits and other consultancy work as required. Back

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