Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Dame Rennie, it is a delight to see you. The Committee has decided to do quite an extensive inquiry that it may call "Government by Appointment" and therefore it wants to take a large view of the whole public appointments process. The natural place to start was with you, partly because we try to see you annually on your annual reports and also because we like your assistance in getting us into thinking about some of these issues. Would you like to say something by way of introduction?


  (Dame Rennie) Thank you. Yes, I would. I am making rather a marathon statement, if I may, because I know there are a number of Members of the Committee that I have not met before I thought I would talk in particular about patronage but also give a more general background, so perhaps you might bear with me a little. First of all, I am grateful to the Committee for inviting me to be here. I always remember my first appearance before the Committee where I said I was really looking forward to this and everyone seemed mildly surprised, but I do look forward to it because I always learn something. I go away and think more deeply or look at things as a result of the questions I am asked. I am also glad to have an opportunity to say something about the work that I have been doing. The timing is particularly opportune for me because I have just been reappointed from the 1st of this month for another three years.

  2. Many congratulations.
  (Dame Rennie) Thank you very much. I am still Commissioner for Public Appointments for England, for Scotland, for Wales and separately appointed to the post of Commissioner for Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland I have been appointed for another year. However, Scotland is due to appoint its own separate Commissioner on 1 April 2003, subject to legislation being passed, at which time I relinquish my responsibility for Scottish appointments. A similar arrangement is under consideration in Wales and I will say a word or two about those changes later. When I was appointed in March 1999, I recognised that there was a huge amount of work to be done to open up public appointments. Partly because of my background and experience over the past 25 years on diversity and equal opportunities, a number of individuals and groups contacted me on my first appointment to discuss what could be done to attract the widest possible pool of candidates. I was very keen right from the start to look at what positive action could be taken. On meeting these groups or individuals and undertaking a number of speaking engagements targeted at attracting more women, people from ethnic minorities, people with a disability as well as younger people and people from a wider geographical region to apply for public appointments, I was aware or made aware right at the beginning that I was pushing my role to the boundaries of my responsibilities. Indeed, it was pointed out to me from time to time that this was not strictly my business. However, some initiatives which I began—for example, a pilot board-shadowing scheme for people with interest and potential to meet and shadow serving non-executive directors—have now been passed over to the central secretariat in the Cabinet Office to take forward so they will live on and I am delighted with that. This pilot scheme was part of a Public Service Week which I conceived and then developed with others. It took place in November 2000, partly in recognition of the importance that people from all walks of life could be made aware of public appointments and that opportunities were made available to them and that it was a regulated process. The good news for me, as far as my reappointment is concerned, is that I have now been given additional responsibilities, including working on diversity officially, which I am taking forward with strong support from the Cabinet Office Minister, Chris Leslie, the Cabinet Office itself and other government departments. We are working together towards an overall, strategic approach. There is broad agreement that action must be taken to remedy the present situation and there is a willingness to be imaginative and creative in doing so. I look forward to building on the work which I and my office have undertaken over the last three years. I think much has been achieved but there is still a huge amount to be done, particularly on diversity. I would like to outline what I have been doing over the last year and the areas relating to the Committee's inquiry which concern me directly. My Code of Practice is underpinned by seven principles which come directly from the recommendation by the Nolan Committee: the principles of ministerial responsibility, of merit, of independent scrutiny, equal opportunities, probity, openness and transparency and proportionality. These principles are the foundation of the public appointments process and are designed to ensure public appointments on merit. My three broad aims are, as they have been from the beginning, firstly, to ensure that there is a fair and open process that is easy to find and smooth to travel through for anyone who seeks to be considered for a public appointment. This process is only effective if it delivers a quality outcome and that is my second aim. Such an outcome is one where the people who are appointed are fit for purpose and can do the job; they are visibly able to demonstrate their performance and, where appropriate, broadly reflect the communities they serve. My third aim is in the area of public confidence and public perception. The public appointments process and the subsequent performance of those who are appointed to serve must be able to meet public scrutiny and expectations and earn the confidence of ministers, Parliament and the general public. I revised my Code of Practice last year in order to simplify the public appointments process and to include a new definition of "merit" which I have adopted. "Merit" was redefined following research and consultation to examine the perceived tension between appointment on merit and the need to achieve greater diversity on boards. The new definition is in line with the recommendation made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that criteria for selection should take account of the need to appoint boards that include a balance of skills and backgrounds without trading down. I have introduced new quality assurance measures which are designed to make sure that independent assessors are selected with the right skills. The new measures will ensure that the assessors are engaged at the key stages of the appointments process and that they are confident in their role as guardians of the process and of my Code of Practice. I have recently set up a new OCPA central list of independent assessors. My office has advertised for, interviewed and subsequently appointed these assessors. The list is primarily for departments that do not have their own lists, but the list may also be used by other departments, for example to fill particularly high profile appointments for which they want to demonstrate that the assessor is as independent as possible. We now have a high quality and diverse group of 22 OCPA independent assessors of whom 13 are women, three are from ethnic minority groups, three are in their thirties and half are from the regions—that is, outside London and the south east. As I said earlier, I am personally committed to opening up the public appointments process. I regularly, on average once a week but sometimes more often, give talks to or meet and listen to targeted groups to encourage a wider range of people to consider applying for public appointments. For example, I spoke to the Women at Work group, a project managed by the WEA, in Inverness last week, to encourage more women into public life. More than 70 women attended from throughout the Highlands and Islands. I spoke yesterday at Opportunity Now to give a personal perspective on women in non-management roles. On Saturday, I am in Winchester giving a speech for Unison on women in public life to celebrate International Women's Day. Later this month I am speaking at Black Women Mean Business which is an event organised by the Home Office Race Equality Unit. Shortly, I am addressing a meeting convened by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association of leaders of disabled charities to encourage them to look more closely inside their membership. I believe those not applying for public appointments can be divided into three groups. First, those who are eminently suitable and either do not know about public appointments or how to be considered for them. Second, others who are also suitable, who do know about public appointments and choose not to come forward for a variety of reasons. Thirdly, those who have potential but currently lack a particular experience or skill which would enable them to be selected on merit. I am working closely with the National Assembly for Wales in relation to a scoping study which has been conducted by Professor Theresa Rees from Cardiff University on motivation to apply for public appointments. We want to understand what motivates those people who have applied to come forward and those who do not. I hope that we will be able to involve England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in some of these initiatives. We need to examine how we inform, attract, administer, sift, assess, interview, recommend, appoint or disappoint all those we endeavour to interest in public appointments. This means having clarity about how many public appointments there are, how many are regulated and by whom and having clarity about the numbers of women, members of ethnic minority groups and disabled people, not only broken down by public body but looking at those who are in chair posts and those who are in paid and unpaid posts. The Scottish Executive have already started a mapping exercise aimed at giving us a clearer understanding of the current status of public appointments and I am encouraging England and Wales to do the same. We need to target departments, bodies, regions and different groups to raise awareness in a proportionate and measured way and to follow through to outcomes. That is, policy review, policy formulation, policy implementation through to policy result. We need to be prepared, openly questioning and radical in our considerations and consultative in our approach. I mentioned paid and unpaid posts and this leads me to the issue of remuneration. Although I recognise that I have no locus in the area of what fees departments pay those people who are serving on public bodies, I believe that remuneration is a diversity issue. About 80 per cent of public appointments are unpaid and I am told by many people that the lack of remuneration and the inconsistent level of remuneration across different bodies are real barriers to enabling a broad cross section of people to participate on boards of public bodies. Many people, for example, who are self-employed or who have small businesses to run cannot afford to spend a day or more a month on a public body with no remuneration. This is likely to be the same for younger people rather than, say, some older people who may be retired with a pension and have time to spare. Economically narrowing the field therefore creates the impression of exclusivity and helps to sustain the belief that public appointments are for the privileged few. Indeed, the perception that boards consist of pale, stale, males from the southern counties still exists. The National Assembly for Wales are currently undertaking a study into the remuneration of their public bodies to try to achieve some consistency and ministers are now considering the results of that study. I do not advocate however that people in public appointments should receive or expect the going rate that they would get in paid employment for the same degree of responsibility. That would change the nature of public service. However, I do think that a fair and consistent approach needs to be taken if we are serious about increasing diversity on public bodies. One of my objectives is to set good practice and encourage departments to learn from past mistakes as a result of complaints made directly to me, particularly looking at those complaints and seeing what lessons might be learned. I am the Ombudsperson for complaints on those public appointments within my remit and I have introduced and revised a complaints process in the handling of complaints within my office. These include informing Permanent Secretaries, heads of department, of new complaints, rather than coming in at a lower level with those I have decided to investigate and issuing the lessons learned together with anonymised summaries of complaints to departments so that they do not make the same mistakes time and time again. We have a steady flow of complaints to my office. There have been 37 in this financial year which compares with 26 until 31 March last year. I employ external auditors to audit departments on a three year cycle and ensure that departments are doing everything that good practice requires. As mentioned, I have simplified my Code of Practice and have grouped all the bodies in my remit into two tiers rather than three as had been previously the case. In doing so, we have built in greater proportionality to the appointments process. This is important and I have asked my auditors this year particularly to audit departments' use of proportionality. There is a danger that departments who make few appointments may introduce so many hurdles that they make it difficult for people to move through the process. I am encouraging departments to be flexible and pragmatic as long as the principles of my Code are not breached. I would also like to mention some of the work that I have been doing on executive search consultants and the use of them. Over the years, our independent auditors and some of the independent complaints I have received exposed areas of weakness in the use of executive search agencies, particularly in the public appointments process so I therefore commissioned a study, the first part of which has yielded some interesting results. The study shows that the use of headhunters varied widely across departments. For example, in the past year, half the government departments who participated in the survey did not use headhunters at all and at the other end of the scale one department used them more than ten times. Of those who did use headhunters, about half did so to ease the administrative burden. The remainder used them either to help where the appointment profile was high, 27 per cent; or else to broaden the field of candidates, 22 per cent. For me, one of the most worrying aspects to emerge from the study was that search consultants were often inadequately briefed by the commissioning department. Fewer than half were provided the job specification or advertisement text. 27 per cent of departments assumed headhunters were aware of my Code of Practice. In the second part of the study, I will be talking to independent assessors who sit on appointments and to search consultants themselves. In particular, I want to see if search consultants understand the principles in my Code of Practice and how to interpret them. I shall be looking at whether there is more information available to the panel on those candidates who come through headhunters rather than those who respond on the web or through advertisements. In other words, whether everyone is being treated fairly and equally. I shall also be interested to hear from headhunters what they think about the stage that they are brought into the process. I want to know more about the openness and transparency of the process and see what questions come out of it and identify best practice. My aim is to protect the integrity of the public appointments process when it is delegated, wholly or in part, to an external agent. I mentioned earlier that Scotland was due to appoint its own separate Commissioner on 1 April 2003, subject to legislation being passed, and that a separate Commissioner for Wales had also been proposed. In the meantime, I am working closely with the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales. My aim is to set up a transitional office in Scotland in advance of the new Commissioner being appointed in order to provide them with a fully operational base and allow a seamless transfer of responsibility. I should stress that this preparatory work would in no way be binding to the new Scottish Commissioner, who would no doubt want to put their own stamp on it. I hope however that they find the work done by this office since 1995 a useful basis on which to start. I am speaking with the National Assembly for Wales about whether a similar arrangement might be set up in Wales. I hope that this has given you an indication of some of the work I have been undertaking over the past year. There is other work which my office is engaged on such as a study into international comparisons, but I do not think we will cover all of it today. I would like to stop there, if I may, and answer any questions or comment on any issues you would like to raise with me.

  3. Thank you. It may well be that, as we proceed with our inquiry, we may want to bring you back when the Committee is up to speed on some of these issues. If we cannot do justice to it all today, please forgive us. What was the problem to which your establishment was the solution?
  (Dame Rennie) The problem was when there was a fair amount of public concern about patronage or sleaze in relation to a range of matters and the Nolan Committee was then set up. Part of the Nolan Committee's work was to look at what standards there should be in public life and how should those standards be monitored and regulated. Out of the suggestions from the Nolan Committee, one of them was that there should be an office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments and an independent Commissioner set up to undertake that work. The government accepted that recommendation. Sir Len Peach was the first person to be appointed to that role.

  4. The problem was the allegation or perception of political bias in public appointments?
  (Dame Rennie) I think it was wider than that. It was the public unease and discomfort and concern—these public appointments are part of public life—and the mystery about who has these appointments—how people are appointed, wanting to know more about it. I think political bias may have been part of it but it is wider than that. I was not part of the Standards in Public Life Committee so I do not know the debates.

  5. Having been part of those debates, I can assure you that very much the climate of the times was that there is political patronage being exercised here in a biased way and therefore we must have it all cleaned up. The Committee on Standards in Public Life heard evidence on it and heard various proposals and proposed you. When you began to do the job, did you discover that those allegations were well founded?
  (Dame Rennie) I discovered that there were a range of practices that were evident and public and there was another range of practices that were not so public and transparent. For example, when I began to listen to concerns about politicisation in National Health Service appointments, one of the things that we discovered was that it was not known to the Commissioner's office at the time that, after people had been through an open process and selected, before their names went to ministers, they went separately to Members of Parliament for them to indicate any thoughts they had about these names. That was one of those practices where there was the possibility of potential for some influence that was not recorded, measured or independently scrutinised.

  6. You are doing some splendid work and your outreach work is wonderful. It is probably not at all what was envisaged as central to the job when it was set up. I am wondering if you were set up to address a perception which was not necessarily the case and, although you say it provides some reassurance, it could provide reassurance about a problem that was not there.
  (Dame Rennie) Certainly. I did find that there were political influences being brought to bear on the appointments in the National Health Service. That was one measurable area that I brought to the public's attention and indeed things have changed there. When I look at how many people undertake political activity who are appointed, something like 19 per cent currently, the public perception is that many more people who are politically active are appointed because that is what gets the headlines. There is still a lot of froth before you get to any substance. I am still finding some substance or still being asked to investigate some of that.

  7. Let me tell you one thing that was put to me the other day about how all this is working. Someone who is very close to these things said, "What used to happen is that the minister used to make these appointments. Now what happens is the civil servants do it", because although there is a veneer of the independent assessor that comes in these independent assessors are former civil servants. They are people who have been in the system ten years ago. They bring their chums in and now it is the Civil Service who are doing all this. What have we gained?
  (Dame Rennie) I understand the concern. You might remember I raised this as a concern myself when I first was appointed and wondered who were these independent assessors; and where did they come from? Since they are there to prevent people being tapped on the shoulder and appointed without any particular criteria against their selection, if that is their role, how were they appointed? I discovered that they had been tapped on the shoulder at the time without any particular criteria to undertake this role. I did find that some of them were former civil servants from the very departments they were there to oversee and I did find that some of them were people who held public appointments in the very department that they were there to oversee. Again, I questioned this as a conflict of interest and have done two things. One is I have now set out in my Code of Practice that departments must publicise the role of independent assessors. They must be openly selected. They must be drawn from a wide range of people. They must be selected against criteria and there must be an independent assessor on that panel. They must come on a training session run by my office so that they truly understand their role and some of the more detailed areas around data protection and equal opportunities. In addition, I have set up this separate group. Because it is in the area of patronage, whose patronage and at what stages? I set out something like eight stages in the process: how do we inform people? How do we attract people? How is it then administered? How are people sifted? How are people assessed? How are they interviewed? How are they recommended and finally through to the appointment? In the informing area, who gives the information about appointments? Where is it publicised? In the sifting area, looking at if civil servants are strongly part of the sifting process-- and indeed they are—are we clear that the sifting process is against criteria? This is an area that I am interested in. I hear from independent assessors that occasionally who writes the references has an effect. If someone significantly well known acts as a reference for someone, does that begin to have an effect? Is that a kind of patronage, at the interview stage? In the recommending stage, how is the submission written? If the panel come to a view on the candidates they see and write their markings and notes about each candidate then three names may go forward to the minister. But who writes the submission? It is likely to be the senior civil servant. Who gets to see it who has been on the panel? It is unlikely to be the independent assessor. The delicacy of emphasis and choice of words may be different at that stage, and not necessarily deliberately, than the emphasis the panel may wish to give and that could have an element of influence.

  8. But you are on the case?
  (Dame Rennie) I am aware of it and I am checking at every stage.

Kevin Brennan

  9. I am interested in this area of politicians' involvement in public appointments. You have just described how ministers are involved. What do you think the role of politicians should be in the public appointment process?
  (Dame Rennie) Politicians generally rather than just ministers?

  10. Both.
  (Dame Rennie) I was fortunate to be able to give a ministerial seminar at 11 Downing Street about three weeks ago, where I was able to speak to ministers and say what I thought.

  11. Who was at it?
  (Dame Rennie) Lord MacDonald, Lord Hunt, Angela Eagle—it might have been Maria. They were both due to be there and one of them could not be. I cannot absolutely be sure. Alun Michael and Lord Whitty are ones that I can remember were there. I think ministers have a very important role right at the very beginning. Ministers need to look, especially if it is the chair of a body, with the senior civil servant and revisit what is the purpose of this body; what is it there to do and to be clear about its purpose first. Then to visit the role of the board. What is the role of the board? You will know that boards generally have two major functions. A bundle of things under the area of governance or conformance, that is to monitor and steward in relation to what is done and how it is done. There is also a bundle of things in relation to the performance of the board, adding value to the strategic thinking, being able to make decisions and so on. Ministers and those involved in the appointment need to be clear: the purpose of this body is this. The role of the board is rarely 50/50 so is it 30 per cent governance and 70 per cent adding value to the strategic thinking and other things or is it, because of current circumstances, more this or more that? Once you have that, you are able to say, "If that is the role of the board, what are the core things that every board member needs to be able to know, understand or do and within that what are the particular extra specialties or expertise that we might need".

  12. They agree that at the beginning?
  (Dame Rennie) Not necessarily. They should but I do not think that happens.

  13. What happens?
  (Dame Rennie) What should happen is that; and that the minister makes it very clear: "I want people who can do these things and this is what we are looking for". Then the advertisement or the publicity material should be drawn up. Then the specification should be drawn up. Then you look at where you go to find people who might be able to do that. Where are the gaps? What extra work needs to be done? What often happens is, because this needs to happen some months before the appointment comes up, senior people and ministers are often too busy and a very junior person in the department says, "This appointment is coming up. We had better pull out the old advertisement, tart it up a bit. What is the latest buzz word? We will add that in, so we are also looking for these things." I am being a bit facetious here but that tends to happen. These junior people are often doing honours, garden parties, all sorts of things. This is not necessarily their main role and they do not do it that often.

  14. When does the minister get involved in practice?
  (Dame Rennie) Often around the time that they are getting the list of candidates in. It is likely that the senior civil servant will be saying to the minister, "This will be coming up. Is there anything in particular you are looking for?"

  15. Anything or anyone?
  (Dame Rennie) Anything in terms of skills and ability or balance on boards. Then they are able to look at the pool of candidates to say, "Have we enough or do we need to go out and do something else?" In terms of MPs, they too should be involved right at the beginning of the process, particularly if it is a local or regional body that is going to affect decisions in their own constituencies. They need to know these are coming up. They need to be consulted about what kinds of things are important within your constituency and what kinds of people are we looking for and do you know any people who live locally who meet these criteria because you may wish to put some names in. They should be asked that right at the beginning, along with all sorts of other people. Where can we find a field of candidates who would suit? MPs have an involvement of course when they are holding the minister of Secretary of State to account for the performance of that body. Have you selected the right person?

  16. Do you think that, underneath the elaborate process that should take place in a public appointment, there may be an informal, unreported process going on whereby there is a nod and a wink between the civil servant and the minister and a list is accidentally left on a desk with names on it and a temperature is taken; rather than the formal process you have described, which is to follow very carefully the procedures based on principles and so on?
  (Dame Rennie) I do not know about lists on desks, but I have had occasion since I have been in this role when ministers have rejected whole lists.

  17. Do you think it is inappropriate to do that?
  (Dame Rennie) I am questioning how have things got to the pitch where the kinds of people coming forward are not what the minister is looking for. That is why I say ministers need to be consulted early. I require my office to be informed every time that happens. It used to happen much more regularly; it now rarely happens. At that stage, their names begin to come forward. The other area where things sometimes happen is if the minister is particularly keen on a set of skills and may know one of the names, if that is known to the senior civil servant. Independent assessors have reported to me that sometimes a senior civil servant appears to be pushing a particular candidate when there is no evidence to suggest they have anything better to offer than the others. That is when the independent assessor must be impartial and independent from that department and must be able to say, "The rest of us do not think this. You are thinking that. You are out on a limb. Therefore, we note you take a different view. The minister will make the decision in the end but this is our joint view".

  18. In the old days, the minister would phone up and say, "Would you like to be the chairman of the Welsh Tourist Board?" and so on. If the independent assessor said at that point, "I disagree with you. This person does not meet the criteria for this appointment", what would be the practical effect of that objection?
  (Dame Rennie) The panel would not be able to place this person above the line if they thought they were not able to do it.

  19. Even if only the independent assessor took that decision?
  (Dame Rennie) No. If only the senior civil servant is pressing for this person and others on the panel said no—that has happened on occasion—that person cannot be placed above the line. If the independent assessor had concerns, they would have to be documented. They are likely to come to me which is why I am relaying this to you. "On this appointment, I am a little worried. I would be grateful if it could be usefully audited because I have concerns. I do not think, in the end, something wrong has happened." Very often, people say this. "I think in the end we got to a good place, but I was concerned along the way that there may have been some particular pressures and therefore I would like you to be aware."

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