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Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 930 - 939)




  930. Can I welcome our next witness, who is Professor Rees from Wales, who has been doing a lot of work for the Welsh Assembly on public appointments issues, both diversity issues and more generally, and we want to draw from her experience of the wider public appointments picture. Thank you for letting us see some of the material you have produced. Would you like to say something by way of introduction?

  (Professor Rees) Thank you very much for inviting me. I welcome this opportunity to talk about what is going on in Wales, because I think it is quite exciting. The place to start, I think, is to say that the legislation that set up the National Assembly for Wales had a clause in it which said that everything the Assembly did should pay due regard to equality of opportunity. There was another clause which basically said there should be proper structures and mechanisms to make sure that the Assembly could deliver on that objective of having due regard. So this duty of having due regard is paid very serious attention in Wales. It is in effect a statutory obligation to promote equality, which exists in Northern Ireland and does not exist in England, Scotland or in GB as a whole. This is delivered through a cross-cutting Equality of Opportunity Committee which is all-party. What is interesting is that the individual politicians of all parties appear to be very committed to this clause. You will be aware, I am sure, that 42 per cent of the Members of the Assembly, (which has 60 Members), are women, which is, outside two Swedish regional assemblies, the best gender balance of any national or regional government in Europe. It is also the case that five out of the nine Cabinet members of the National Assembly for Wales are women, which as I understand it is unprecedented in the world, as far as I can establish. So you have that gender balance, which I think means that there is a particular interest in this whole issue. The Assembly itself is by its words and deeds very committed to participatory democracy and to social inclusion. At the time the Assembly was set up, we had a situation where it was post-Nolan, and there was a movement towards having independent assessors. I myself was appointed as an independent assessor post Nolan by the old Welsh Office, but it was the case that patronage was regarded as the norm and ministerial appointments were administered in the normal way for that period. So the Assembly has been quite committed to cultural change in the whole area of public appointments, and trying to open up the Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies, in essence, not simply to try to get a more diverse group of people putting themselves forward and being accepted for public appointments, but to modernising public service in Wales more generally. This participatory democracy is simply one element of that. It is worth mentioning also, I think, that Wales was dubbed at this time "Quango-land"—I think we had more quangos per square inch than other parts of the UK—so it was a particular issue. When I became an independent assessor in the mid-Nineties, it was clear to me that the civil servants in the Welsh Office—and I have no reason to believe they were any different from any other part of the Civil Service—were not experienced in making appointments per se. They did not have that system of appointment to public appointments or indeed to their own Civil Service. There was also not much cross-learning across departments. If you think of the old Welsh Office as a mini-Whitehall in a sense, because all the different functions were covered, each department was developing its own new trajectory and way of dealing with things. That was the situation. What has happened since then I think has been a very concerted effort to improve the professionalism of the public appointments system. There was a raising awareness week with Dame Rennie Fritchie, a building up of the list of people reflecting the Public Appointments Unit in London's own list and trying to ensure that there was better gender balance and so on on that, moving towards advertising appointments, and slightly jollier advertisements are now to be seen than the ones in the early years, ones that say, "Do you have these competencies? Are you interested in the National Health Service? There is a chance for you." So rather more exciting advertisements perhaps. A lot of advice was sought from the various statutory equality agencies and the voluntary sector on how to get a wider range of people to put themselves forward. The scoping exercise you have a copy of, which was really a bit of a brainstorm on some lines of approach to try to widen this up, and there have been other pieces of work too, like Morgan's report on the representativeness of the various communities. There has been a consultation on the remuneration and expenses, and much more use of the Internet in trying to convey information about opportunities. The independent assessors such as myself have all been sacked, because we were appointed by the "tap on the shoulder" method, which was an in-built paradox, to my way of thinking. That has come to an end, and now if you want to be an independent assessor for the National Assembly, you need to respond to an advertisement which is coming out next week, and I myself will be responding and I am sure lots of other existing assessors will be responding, and we will be vetted and trained and professionalised in that way. Another initiative that has been taken forward is the introduction of more elements on citizenship into the National Curriculum in Wales to try and instil in young people the notion that this is part of what they might do as an adult. A number of ideas have emerged from all this. With your permission, I will just mention them briefly. The first I think is progression routes. We quite often see, for example, people becoming involved in school governing bodies who, when their individual child has left that school, are in a sense lost to public service, and we feel in that sort of situation some of these people might be harnessed and encouraged to move into another layer or tier of public service, perhaps by applying for a public appointment. So the issue of progression routes is one that we are quite interested in. Also, the use of independent assessors: at the moment it is my view that they are rather under-used. They are keen, they are willing, sometimes they are only called once or twice a year, they come from all over Wales, they are fairly diverse—hopefully they will be even more diverse after this recruitment exercise. We have been suggesting that they could go out into the highways and byways of Wales, making connections with voluntary organisations and so on, and doing presentations to those members of those organisations, encouraging them and informing them about opportunities for public service in this way. We have looked at work-shadowing, for example: attending board meetings and opening up some of those meetings to people who do not really know what goes on behind these doors. We have discovered enormous ignorance really about the whole issue of public appointments and public service and what goes on. I think the ignorance is a major barrier to all sorts of people participating. The use of head-hunters is a very contentious issue on the equality angle. My own view is that as long as they are properly briefed to go out and look for diverse heads, there is nothing wrong with using them. It is when they are in effect rather lazy, and rely on existing networks and knowledge that they have, that tendency to be rather restricted in their characteristics, that it can become a problem. The issue of retention I think is also important. I was very interested in the debate about performance appraisal and review. That is all part of the agenda in Wales for modernising public service, but how do you also keep good people? Also, I think the issue that was raised about how you assess competencies. You might be a very good, competent person who had been at home for many years looking after children and developed competencies in stress management, multi-tasking, all these things that are essential for this kind of existence—how do we draw those people in? There has been an enormous change in the forms used from the mid Nineties, which asked you to list, for example, your marital status, the name of your wife and her maiden name and to list your medals. We have moved on from that now to a situation where we ask people to look at the competencies required for the post and to explain how they have them. The Assembly emphasizes in the forms that these may come from being at home looking after children or sick relatives, they may come from voluntary sector activity or from employment. It is not presumed that only people with traditional forms of employment will have these competencies. That is very much emphasized. I think we have to look at the enigma of merit and potential. As a social scientist, I would want to deconstruct these terms and say, "What is it we really are trying to get at here?" and we like head hunters must not be lazy and read off from a person's career that they must have or must induce that they must have these characteristics because they have had that career or because they have been on 19 public bodies already—they may have been terrible! That is the way in which the debate is developing: a search for these competencies, not how they were acquired. There is one particular appointment that maybe, if you were interested, I would like to have the opportunity to describe at some stage, and that was the appointment of the Children's Commissioner in Wales, which I believe does not exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom at the moment, where children from care were involved in the appointments process. Seventeen children took part in this. Some of them had learning difficulties. They were not a statistically representative sample of children in care, but they were a cross-section. As the independent assessor on that appointment, I was asked for my advice on how to involve children. I found this very unnerving and ran immediately to Dame Rennie Fritchie, who thought it was extremely interesting and worthwhile, it probably had not been done before, and wished me luck but I was on my own on this one. To cut a long story short, the children visibly grew up before our very eyes. They took the exercise extremely seriously. There were two independent panels, in a sense. The children went through all the short-listed candidates by themselves and submitted them to extremely gruelling tasks and interviewing. Fortunately, their top candidate was the full panel's top candidate, including the Minister's. What we would have done if that had not been the case I am not sure. I was very heartened by that process, and I think it is an extremely interesting example of participative democracy and one that meant that the Children's Commissioner basically had the vote and support of children in care as well as the Minister and the Appointments Committee. Maybe I should stop there. I am hoping I am conveying an enormous paradigm shift in approach to this whole issue, and an attempt to professionalise and to enhance participative democracy. It is a slow process. It is like turning a great ship around. But I think there are some welcome signs that we are having some results.

  931. That is very interesting indeed. Is that what you mean when you talk about the democratisation of public appointments? You have given an interesting example there of involving users in new ways. What are the other kinds of things you might be talking about?
  (Professor Rees) I think the most important issue is increasing the diversity of people who put themselves forward and are appointed to public appointments. At the moment, like any other part of the country, it is largely men, particularly in the more senior appointments; it is largely white people; there are very few disabled people, and so on. Of course, in Wales we have the Welsh language as well, and the urban/rural dimension. So it is ensuring that the people appointed to the Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies reflect better the population that they are serving. At the moment it is clear that there is quite a long way to go on that. That is the first issue. Following on from that, it is not simply a question of getting a few quick wins by targeting, for example, some disabled people, getting them on to the boards. It is also about changing the way in which the boards do their business to facilitate the participation of these people. It is no good having people who are not terribly experienced in working in committees if they are going to be interrupted and overruled the whole time. The culture of the way in which the business is done needs to accommodate these people and needs to hear their voices. It might mean more telephone work, it might mean more video-conferencing, instead of the standard way in which business is done. It is about changing the nature of the engagement, not simply getting more people of a diverse background in. The second way in which I think the democratisation is occurring is through transparency. There has been a tremendous shift from the old system of the minister tapping on the shoulder to these appointments being advertised, but being advertised very proactively, through the web, through organisations, including the voluntary sector, being encouraged to nominate people or encouraging people to nominate themselves. It is very much an outreach programme to try and get information out to people and to encourage people to apply, and to make the whole system transparent. What I have noticed in getting on for ten years of working in this area is that people in the past would say, "Well, there is no point in applying. These things are always fixed. They may be advertising them now, but that's obviously going to go to X." That is now changing. You are getting more people applying for these posts and a more diverse range of people putting applications in, particularly from ethnic minorities, and that is very heartwarming. Part of what this project will hopefully do is to monitor and provide some baseline data, to see which under-represented minorities populations still need to be targeted and tackled. The equality agencies have worked very hard with the Assembly in partnership on this whole agenda. They have been very active in trying to get the message out to groups.

  932. Staying with that last point, Sir William Wells was telling us just now that he believed the fact that appointments had been put on to an independent basis was helping with this business of getting people to trust the system and not believe that it was fixed, and therefore increasing both the number and variety of appointments. I wonder if that would be your conclusion too, because if it were, it would lead you down the same route in thinking about making the actual business of appointments an independent process.
  (Professor Rees) Yes. I think in Wales the scale is not as great as we were hearing about with the NHS, and so it is more manageable within the existing structure. Ministers still play a role. The appointment panel will produce a recommendation and a very detailed report, and that report is increasingly professional in stressing how this name has emerged through merit and through fitness on the competencies. It is much more difficult for a minister then to disagree with the outcome of an appointment panel if that demonstration is there. So ministers still have the last word, if you like, in these appointments.

  933. That is why I am asking you. If we have been hearing about the virtues of that last word having been taken away from them, why on earth would you want to retain it?
  (Professor Rees) I am not sure that I could make a very coherent argument for retaining it except in that these are elected people.

  934. That was what was wrong with the old patronage system. People were saying because they were elected, they could appoint anybody they wanted to public bodies.
  (Professor Rees) That was the point. They were entirely in the gift of the elected people, and there was no system of matching up, as far as I could see, merit and the skills needed for the post. Indeed, the skills needed for the post were not even articulated at that time. This, I think, is a system where you have checks and balances, but you still have some ministerial input into the system, but essentially, what is driving it is merit and fit-for purpose, not political preference.

  935. It is important for us to get to the bottom of this, because if ministers retain the ability to specify the kind of job it is, which they do have, even with an independent appointments system, if you then have an independent appointments system that produces the best person, taking account of all these complex ways which you understand best, why then do we want the politicians to retain the right to make the appointment?
  (Professor Rees) I am not going to go to the wall on this one. What I can say is that in the National Assembly the politicians' involvement is cross-party, and if they arrive at a consensus and have that cross-party support, it strengthens the position of those public appointees to know that they have come through on the basis of merit a fairly rigorous appointments system, and they have support not simply from one person but from the Assembly. That is quite a powerful support. That is an imprimatur, if you like; that is a permission to go out and do the job with that backing. If you removed that, you may then set up a situation for these people where ministers have a go at them, criticise them publicly. You could end up with a situation where actually that post becomes untenable. I think there needs to be some sort of compromise there. I think the system in Wales is rather different from the ministerial system here. Partly there is a two-party pact in Scotland and in Wales, of course, so you have to have consensus politics to an extent because of that, and there is in essence in the National Assembly an all-party commitment to making the Assembly work, and therefore, in that spirit of good will, the system currently works, to my mind, effectively. If any of those things were to change, the concerns that you are raising would be stronger.

  936. So you think it is the bipartisan imprimatur that goes on these appointments that makes it all right.
  (Professor Rees) It helps to strengthen the position of the appointees to have that all-party support.

Mr Trend

  937. You have put yourself up for re-appointment with the others as an independent assessor. How is that going to be fixed?
  (Professor Rees) You can get into Chinese boxes. Who are going to be the independent assessors on the appointment of the independent assessors? I do not know how that is going to work. That is a very good question.

  938. It is, because if you were tapped on the shoulder, who is going to decide whether the tap was OK? Is it the Minister? Who has a constitutional duty to make sure the new assessors are correctly appointed?
  (Professor Rees) It will be the responsibility of the First Minister to make sure the system was done properly, but the purpose of terminating all the independent assessors and starting afresh is precisely to improve that system, and to make sure, of course, that all the independent assessors have the appropriate training. I think that is incredibly important. They are the guardians of the fair system.

  939. So you have applied for a position but you do not know the process that is going to be used.
  (Professor Rees) The assessor posts are being advertised next week. I am not on the inside track.

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