Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1040 - 1045)



1040.  So the ball is in our court?

  (Mr Alexander) As I say, I am not saying anything at the end of the day that we have not said before this Committee and indeed before Wicks previously. I hope I am correct and not neglecting evidence I gave before Wicks, but certainly it remains the case that we look forward with interest to the work of this Committee and indeed the Wicks Committee as well, and I hope that that will inform the general process in the months to come.


1041.  Let's get back to the major point in this inquiry. Could I ask you two final things. It seems to me that we have moved from talking about public appointments in terms of patronage and cronyism, which is how it has dominated things for the last ten years or so, to one about public appointment as a form of public service. I think we have turned the thing round completely. I wonder if you were thinking about some of the time off provisions that we might be able to encourage, for example across business as well as the public sector, so that we build some incentives into organisations and to people to take part in public service. Is that an area that you are looking at?

  (Mr Alexander) I will ask Helen to speak on the specifics in a moment but let me address the general point that you have raised. Of course, it is the case I am keen to see us move from a nation of passive citizenship, which I think has dominated this country for too long, to a notion of active, contributory citizenship. That may find expression in service through public appointments, it may find expression in volunteering, it may find expression in involving community organisations, but I think entirely consistent with the thrust of Government policy over the last five years has been that evolution towards what I hope is a more optimistic and contributory view of the role that the citizenry can play in the life of our country. It was therefore intriguing to me, I have to say, in preparing for this appearance today to see the word "patronage" in the title of your inquiry because in some ways—and I hope this is an accurate reflection of public opinion—that speaks to where concern existed at a greater level in years past. That is not to say there is not a continuing level of noise in the system and concern around particular issues which people may raise, but I believe very significant progress has been made since Nolan. One of the areas—indeed we were talking about it in the office earlier—where we can feel very legitimate pride, and it often is not ventilated enough when discussions take place about issues of public appointments and patronage, is the degree to which internationally Britain is leading in terms of this area. If you look at some of our fellow major industrialised countries and the operation of public appointments elsewhere, then I think we can take a legitimate pride (which of course should not lead to complacency) in the progress that we have made in recent years. In that sense there is real scope in terms of my responsibilities for the civil service to the kind of talk that is being given to time off for volunteering and engagement in wider issues around participation beyond work and the whole issue of work/life balance. This sits comfortably within a far broader political agenda of rehabilitating the public realm. It was a very different political philosophy that suggested that somehow there was an absolute demarcation that could be established between a failing state and an aspiration of private citizenry. We are coming to a far more sophisticated understanding that we alone who are serving in a professional capacity in public life are not equipped to build the kind of society we want; we need to build it together.
  (Ms Ghosh) To be more mundane, one of the issues the Short Life Working Group has been looking at is this one, this question about time off from work. There are similarly issues raised for self-employed, who are giving up the capacity to earn by joining a public body. The group has had a look at the current statutory requirements, for example on business relations to Magistrates and jury service, obviously. It is recognised that there are difficult issues there in terms of burdens on business, and so on, and that possibly a more constructive route is to identify some good employers who currently do encourage their staff to take up these kind of opportunities and use that as a sort of best practice model to try and spread the word about how being involved in a public body helps everybody, it is not just that it serves the public as a whole it gives the individual skills and experience they can bring back to their professional life. It is most likely we would want to look at that approach, best practice, what the best companies do, spread that model round and emphasise the benefits to the companies concerned.
  (Mr Alexander) Helen is absolutely right. In a previous life the DTI had the responsibility for corporate and social responsibility. It seems to me that part of the opportunity that we have in corporate social responsibility is to win the argument with companies that they personally benefit as individual organisations from giving their staff that level of exposure and experience. I can well remember a conservation I had with the senior manager on the Board of Directors at the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the most profitable and successful Scottish businesses at the moment, where he said, "I cannot tell you how valuable it has been to my frontline managers to be working with credit unions, because if you want to see people who understand credit control go and talk to volunteers who are running credit unions across Scotland." In that sense that seemed to me a key insight. One of the arguments we need to get up is persuading a range of organisations that it is in their own interest in terms of motivation of the workforce and productivity of the workforce for people to be involved. I certainly believe those arguments hold in terms of the kind of experience that we have, experiences in the public bodies.


1042.  I would like to go beyond the moment of appointment, it is not enough just to appoint somebody to a public body and then wave good-bye to them and think about appointing somebody else to another public body. If we are putting lay people on to public bodies to perform public functions for us, particularly scrutiny functions, that, surely, requires a continuing support system. I declare an interest because I chair a new body called the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which is entirely about trying to support the scrutiny function of public bodies. I am very conscious having been a layperson on a number of public bodies the continuing need for some kind of support function or support activity for people like that. I hope that is something that we could interest the government and the Cabinet Office in, particularly across government. As I say, there is no point in having this system of getting lay people into public bodies to perform these functions for us if we are not tooling them up to make sure they can do the job we want them to do. Again I ask, is that an area that either of you are looking at or might I persuade you to look at?

  (Mr Alexander) I am interested in the work that you are undertaking and look forward to receiving your thoughts in the future in this area. Until we are clear of those recommendations it is difficult to be more prescriptive than that. I would certainly be interested to have sight of anything you uncover. I think it also speaks to the earlier point you were making, about the need to make sure we get the right people into these organisation, on the one hand we have a challenge of making sure that we tool-up and skill people with the skills required. It also requires a degree of honesty in saying, many of these bodies have highly, highly important public responsibilities and it is vital that we make sure that people are both qualified and motivated to discharge those functions. The idea that somehow you randomly select a group of people on the street to serve on what are highly influential organisations that perform vital scrutiny functions you have identified with the question and I think that is something that should give the Committee cause for consideration before its final report is published.
  (Ms Ghosh) Certainly this issue about the post appointment world is something which anecdotally is obviously fantastically important and we want to get more to the bottom of what we can do about it. There is no point in appointing a wonderfully diverse team into a NDPB if the chairperson is not welcoming, if the system is not welcoming, if they are treated like the token women/person from an ethnic minority, or whatever. One of things we are very keen to do in my team is to focus more activity on this whole question of NDPBs, training for chairs who also play a very large role in selection, looking at governments, to use that umbrella term, do they welcome these people. If there is a problem, if anyone encounters a problem, is there someone identified they can go to to talk about it? Are they mentored? A mentoring kind of structure might be very valuable for people from different backgrounds, and over the next year this is something that my team will be looking at very closely and talking to partners about.

1043.  Thank you very much for that. It must be very alarming being on a Short Life Working Party; it sounds quite threatening.

  (Ms Ghosh) It sounds like we are about to expire.

1044.  What would be very useful is if it is possible to see the conclusions of that work.

  (Ms Ghosh) Certainly.

1045.  It would help us. When do you think that might be?

  (Ms Ghosh) Very shortly. We are only held up by the fact that, as you know, Dame Rennie is away on sick leave at the moment. Because she was such a leading player on this what I am hoping to do is to produce the report of the group in the next month or so and then have an agreed report around Christmas time to put to the Minister.
  (Mr Alexander) The Short Life Working Group sends it report to the group who are worried that they have a short working life!

  Chairman: We are very grateful to both of you for coming along. Thank you.

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Prepared 26 November 2002