Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1280-1299)

THURSDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2003

MR HAMISH DAVIDSON AND MS ALISON CAWLEY

  1280. So you could not construct an appointments panel of your liking?
  (Ms Cawley) No.
  (Mr Davidson) I think that would be hard, and there is an issue about candidates being quite concerned. There is a need for these appointment panels to stack up credibly. If they do not, candidates are not necessarily going to stay the course and may well withdraw in advance, if they think there is something odd about the panel.

  1281. You are bringing an interesting perspective to this because you are not inside the system. So you are giving us an absolute assurance through your involvement in the public sector appointment that if a minister wants to get a crony in now they cannot?
  (Mr Davidson) It is not possible for me to give you that kind of absolute assurance. I would say that if we were concerned about the make-up of an appointment panel we have the opportunity to express that concern, and I am not aware of any of the appointments we have made in recent years where we have been extremely unhappy about the make-up of an appointment panel. For example, we may well observe that the panel seems to be all white males, and consistent panels like that are not sending out a very positive message at all, and we will point that out and make in most cases recommendations as to potential other individuals who could be added. If we had a major difficulty with the make-up of a panel we would say so, but I am not aware that we have felt obliged to do that.

  1282. You were doing it pre-Nolan?
  (Mr Davidson) Yes.

  1283. And pre-Nolan and post-Nolan there has been a change?
  (Mr Davidson) I think we would sense there has been a greater degree of rigour and more transparency, or there appears to be, in what is happening.
  (Ms Cawley) I think that is fair comment. There is still a variety of approaches to recruitment at this level. Hamish has described what we would see as a very rigorous, highly defensible process which, in terms of the public and the media and any scrutiny function, would have a high degree of face validity. You can see the hurdles people have had to jump and the objective tests they have had to take to be appointed. However, there are still appointments made on a much less rigorous basis. For example, there are some extremely high-level appointments which are made simply on the basis of a paper application and a panel interview, so our role would be to carry out the sift of paper applications and make recommendations as to which candidates we felt the panel should see, and then the only following part of the process is a panel interview of 45-50 minutes. Our view is that you would not appoint a chief executive or a senior official on that basis, and you probably should not appoint the chair or leading member of an important public body on that basis. So we would argue for a much more transparent, objective, rigorous process on all these appointments, which would help to assure the public that this is not about cronyism. If somebody has been appointed it is because they have genuinely been seen as the best person after that lengthy and thorough process.
  (Mr Davidson) I would support Alison absolutely on that. I think the process used for the CRE appointment was one of the most rigorous we have done for these appointments, but it stood out as a result of that fact. An argument that gets used as to why it is okay to just advertise, do a paper sift and then go to final interviews is that people at this level will not like to have a screening interview. I think this is nonsense and certainly, for this kind of senior level appointments, they should be screened properly.

  Chairman: That is very helpful.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  1284. Keeping on that, you are called in to advise on a public sector appointment—we will keep to public sector. Do you rely entirely upon the people who put in when the post has been advertised, or do you have a dossier of people who you have built up through experience? There may have been somebody in a previous public appointment who did not get a particular job but you think might be very suitable for the other job that is being advertised so without giving trade secrets away, let me put it bluntly, do you just confine yourselves to those people who have put in for that particular job upon seeing the advertisement?
  (Ms Cawley) No, we do not, because particularly with public appointments if you did that you would be relying on a self-selecting group of people who think, "Yes, public appointments are for me". Now, I will not be the first person to tell you that there is a great tendency to think that public appointments are for the great and the good and if you have not got one already there is no point in applying, so we will actively use search for these appointments as a tool for diversity to try to attract the widest range of people in terms of their age, gender, ethnic origin, whether they have a disability or not—any variations in background to draw the widest possible range, because a more diverse group of people will tend to make better decisions. There is plenty of research that shows that. So we will seek to reach out using the networks we have and the contacts, people we have perhaps come across before on other assignments. We talk to a wide range of people to get recommendations of people they have come across who impress them, always trying to spread the ripples out across the pond, as it were. Sometimes it will take a lot of effort talking to people to say, "Yes, you are the kind of person who should be applying for public appointments". You know Dame Rennie's famous words, "pale , male and stale", and in respect of Bert Massie[1]who gave evidence to you, perhaps we should add "hale" to that as well to take account of the disability element. We are always trying to increase the diversity of people and then, on their merits, the suitable ones are appointed.

  1285. So you might have come across somebody who you think might have been ideal for a particular job and you would get in touch with them and ask them to put in an application?
  (Ms Cawley) We would talk to them about this appointment and say to them, "This strikes us as a good match for the skills and experience you could bring". We would listen to why perhaps that had not occurred to them and seek to engage in a dialogue with them about why they might be exactly the right sort of person. The process for search candidates is exactly the same as somebody who responds to the advertisement—there is no magic ticket to get them on to the short list. They will have to apply in exactly the same way as somebody responding to the advert, and be assessed in the same way on the same criteria, so once you are in everybody is treated in exactly the same way. It is the effort to get people into the fold to maximise the diversity.
  (Mr Davidson) Adding to that, what Alison has described is very much a Veredus perspective. It is fair to say, however, that on occasions our sister company, Capita RAS, may be used with a view to handling assignment cases, so in that case there may be no search. That may be where the client concerned is of the view that the response is likely to be so large and the interest so great that there is no need to involve any additional search; thereafter, however, the process would be the same as Alison described. Secondly, in terms of the scope of the search, we also take our steer from the client. The client may say, "We want you to look in particular sectors: we think that the kinds of people we need are going to be in those sectors, please go and try and identify some". That in particular may occur when there is a desire to try and increase the number of candidates from the private sector. Government has this policy of permeability—trying to increase the movement of individuals between parts of the public sector but also the public to private and the private to public, and increasingly we are being asked to seek to identify candidates from the private sector who might be capable of making the transition as well. So we will take the steer from the client.

  1286. You seem to have read a lot of our evidence—in preparation, doubtless, for this session. Have you come across a management consultant called Ivy Cameron?
  (Ms Cawley) No, but I read her evidence with great pleasure!

  1287. Let me just rehearse very briefly what she said. She questioned the role played by headhunters in public appointments. In her evidence she said that there were only a few ethical headhunters and when we asked her to say what she meant by "ethical" she said: "I put laziness and lack of vision in with the ethics here because they move in the same circles as the people they recruit. They like to get their money as quickly as possible so they do not really want to put too much effort into trawling for meritorious people, so they already have lists which they will refer to. It is a recycling all the time". Now, you will have a happy rejoinder to all of that.
  (Ms Cawley) Yes. I think that is a very accurate description of some of our competitors!

Chairman

  1288. I think that is an answer you prepared earlier!
  (Ms Cawley) But in all seriousness many of us in the team joined from the public sector. I myself am a former civil servant and local government officer; I consider myself still to be working for the public sector although not in it at the moment. If we were not committed to the standards and the values that are important to me and my colleagues as individuals, we would not be doing this, so I think we are ethical headhunters. I did not want to create a conflict of interest before this session, but one of the things we want to do is make contact with Ivy and talk to her about what we do, and certainly she sounds like the sort of person we should be talking to in any case. So no, it is not about recycling; we do not have lists or little black books or Psion organisers or whatever; yes, we know people; yes, we have active networks both as sources and as potential candidates, but we are always widening those. One of the things we put a lot of effort into is developing capacity, so we run every five or six weeks or so a job-hunting skills workshop for potential candidates for senior posts, executive or non-executive. Those are free and we run them as part of our commitment to the sector, so the people who can benefit from those are private sector candidates looking to understand the public sector that they want to move into or public sector candidates who want to be promoted. Those sessions last four or five hours and give a lot of advice of how to work with recruitment consultants, what clients are looking for, how to make the best of the skills and the experience you have. Similarly, I was involved with the Women and Equality Unit in drawing up some of the materials for the seminars that Dame Rennie has been running around the country trying to help women in particular to apply for public appointments. I was involved in drawing up the handouts and materials for the session on how to construct your experience and showcase it in a CV, looking at the skills you might not see as skills but which are valuable. So I believe we are ethical, and we do a great deal to boost the capacity of people, to encourage them, and to empower them to feel that they are the kind of people who should be applying for public appointments.
  (Mr Davidson) I am pleased to hear Alison say that because I think she is highly representative of the team of people we have assembled, and it is fairly clear that Ivy has not seen the way that we would recruit in terms of using, for example, technical assessors—people who have been there and done it and been successful and who are in a position to come and judge whether people who look good, talk good and write good would actually be dangerous if appointed, and seek them out. I think that is critical. One other point is, coming back full circle to how much money one can earn, both Alison and I could have earned far more money doing private sector recruitment undoubtedly, and the question is why, given that public sector recruitment is tougher and harder and more awkward, we are still doing it after all these years. It is interesting and matters, but I also approach it by saying it is my taxpayers' money as well. I have just as much invested in ensuring that charlatans do not get appointed and get jobs and just as much of a vested interest in ensuring that good people get appointed, and that is something that all of the team that I work with here, many of whom come from the public sector and may yet go back into it, hold to.

  1289. Picking you up on one point, you said it is more difficult doing public sector. Why? Why is it easier in the private sector?
  (Mr Davidson) Public sector recruitment on the face of it is somewhat more process-driven, and there are good reasons for that. It needs to be demonstrated—that is fine. There are many more stakeholders commonly, and many more people wishing to get involved in the brief-taking, many more wishing to get involved in the decision-making further on, and there is a political overlay as well which is sometimes quite difficult for candidates from outside the sector to understand. Recruiting to the public sector is tricky. Also as a whole the public sector is not held in the highest regard and it is often difficult to get candidates to apply for jobs in the sector, but we would regard public sector recruitment as very difficult. Witness why is it there are so few headhunters who specialise in public sector work? What happens is they experiment, they have a go and they think, "I am not doing this any more".
  (Ms Cawley) Until the next recession when they are suddenly interested again.

  1290. Anyway, Ivy is going to get a call.
  (Ms Cawley) After you, Chairman!

Annette Brooke

  1291. I would like to explore further this issue of inequalities in terms of the appointments. Apparently you said in The Guardian last year in January that you have never encountered so much prejudice of the public sector. Could you elaborate on that in the context of, say, appointments to quangos, which we are taking particular interest in?
  (Mr Davidson) You need to understand the context in which I made the statement. In the public sector I have been staggered, for a sector that talks about equality and fairness, to see the prejudices of central government versus local. Central government says, "I have done policy; you do not know policy" and local government says, "All you know is policy, you have never run anything", backwards and forwards. Also against health; within local government, for example, London against outside of London, county against district, district against county, and Scotland and Wales against everybody. It is staggering. The one feature that underpins all the work we do is that what we have discovered is leadership talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colours and genders and is as good in any one sector as in any other. That is the key. Increasingly what we are about is finding leadership talent. So, yes, I am amazed that the public sector is so, within itself, against each other and I would like to think we have been tackling some of that. Then you have the public/private sector divide as well, and there is just as much prejudice between the two.

  1292. Are you encountering prejudice against women?
  (Mr Davidson) We probably encounter a greater prejudice for women, I would say. There is such a perceived shortage of women in senior posts and a great desire to increase that number that we are constantly encouraged to find those candidates. We will, therefore, do our best to do that. Of course we do not determine the longlist or the shortlist or make the appointment, so however many women candidates we may generate, we are not in charge of who gets appointed. Yet it is the case, and the example I will give you is from outside quangos. I was involved in the appointment of a local government chief executive yesterday. As it happens the woman was appointed but there was a moment when the line of questioning, it seemed to me, was occurring because there was a concern as to whether this woman was going to be tough enough. Now the question was quite fair because the post is tough, it really is, but I knew the individual concerned can be very tough, but that the way she conducts herself and conveys herself is perhaps more subtle and sophisticated. In fact the issues were resolved, but I could just see that if one does see some prejudice on occasions, one of the obvious ones is there will be often be an assumption that men can be tough and women less so.
  (Ms Cawley) Rather than prejudice, there tend to be preconceptions. My anecdotal example would be from a final panel on a public appointment, where there was a female candidate who was asked the question by a civil servant, "You are relatively young: this is the kind of job that would normally be done by a middle-aged man in a pin-striped suit. Do you think you have the bottom for it?", at which point she—

Chairman

  1293.—showed her bottom?
  (Ms Cawley) I wish she had, but the interesting thing was that this particular individual was only three years younger than the man who eventually got the job, who was not asked any questions about his bottom or whatever the person meant by that, so there will be those preconceptions. I think it is still the case unfortunately that women need to prove themselves more than men do. If a man has got to a certain level in a job it will be assumed he has qualities A, B, C and D, including toughness; a woman will still be interrogated more and required to prove that she has done these things even if she has a parallel career record. The other issue can be if a woman has not necessarily had a traditional career path: if she has had caring responsibilities, has taken time out from work or has made sideways moves in order to accommodate family responsibilities. There are still people who unthinkingly will think the worse of them for that. I think it is less the conscious prejudice that "A woman cannot do this job" but more the unthinking, "Oh, if that is the level she has got to at that age it is not as good as that chap who is at a higher level". That is where we can be extremely useful as the objective challengers, reminding people, "Well, she is at that level because she has had five years out with childcare", or whatever it might be. So it is not the kind of direct prejudice that perhaps you would have had twenty years ago, but certainly there are still plenty of preconceptions that need challenging.
  (Mr Davidson) Interestingly, I alluded to the fact that there is a dearth of women in senior posts and also non-white individuals as well. As a result these individuals tend to get headhunted frequently, and what happens potentially is one solves one person's perceived problem by creating another gap, a vacancy. What we have been trying to do over the last five years is help build capacity, since it is about encouraging individuals in terms of what they need to do to build their career and to build the scope in it to be able to make those senior moves. One may interview individuals who do not end up going forward but, through part of the feedback process, they can discover from us the things they can positively and constructively do developmentally to position themselves to be able to break through and get those roles in the future.

Annette Brooke

  1294. Do you think that the government's targets for increased participation right across all the minority groups are realistic? I would like to know what more you think the government could be doing, and I would like to add in a little picture which I have built up with the questioning, probably prejudice on my part, that maybe you have a key person being appointed who happens to be male who then possibly participates in the appointment of the rest of the board members, and that one person might be carrying preconceptions or what-have-you through with them, so it ripples through. Finally, is there anything that the government should be building into key appointments to make sure of the characteristics of those particular key appointments that would help in rippling it all the way down?
  (Ms Cawley) In terms of government targets, that is a topic you have spent quite a bit of your time on. I think if targets are easily achievable they are not worth having. The targets are ambitious and it will take many years yet looking at the gender issue to achieve a 50/50 women/men balance. That does not mean we should stop trying or should lower our aspirations. It seems to me, and I am very committed to social justice, to equity, to fairness, that it surely has to make sense that public appointments should be representative of the people they are appointed to serve, so it is right to aspire to having the proportions of those groups that reflect the population. Of course women are not a minority—even though in rooms like this we sometimes seem like one!—and it should be right to aspire that the proportions as represented in the House of Commons and in public appointments should reflect those proportions in the population, and we would hate to see the government move away from that.
  (Mr Davidson) You make the point about a chair being appointed and then being involved in subsequent further appointments. There is a danger of that and, to be honest, that is all the more reason why we should get the chair appointments correct in the first place.

  1295. I think that is what I am asking you.
  (Mr Davidson) I think you have already got on record our views about that. We think that the process should be more rigorous and there is no excuse for making it less so than for chief executive appointments. We believe that very firmly. Having said that, it is not appropriate, we think, that a chair of a body should not be involved in the appointment of members of the board they will be part of. They have to be, but behoves us in those situations to ensure that there is appropriate advice on a level that is courageous enough to speak up in situations where an open process is less than robust. The main solution here is to get the right chair appointed, and ensure that those processes have been carried out with the greatest of rigour and integrity.

  1296. What more could the government be doing to hit those targets, please?
  (Ms Cawley) There is some very good work going on already, and I think it would be more of the same. There is no magic wand that can suddenly produce all these people and have them appointed straight away. It will be a case of plugging away at it, publicising the kinds of case studies that Dame Rennie Fritchie in particular has been keen on, and which she includes in her bulletins and on the website, of people you might not expect to see in those roles doing well in them. The message should be constantly reinforced in what ministers say and do in terms of the appointments they make, that we do generally want to broaden things out. That means some creative thinking by the organisations headed by these bodies: Are you having meetings at a time that makes it possible for the widest possible range of people to attend if they are appointed? Are you offering the right kind of support either through remuneration or through reimbursement of expenses, particularly childcare costs and attendant allowances for disabled people? There should be creativity around the support that you can give people, and also more of the roadshows like Dame Rennie Fritchie has been doing for women. There has been some work by Operation Black Vote, rather than by CRE or other official bodies. It's about trying to do the outreach work, meeting people face-to-face, which is always most effective in convincing them that you can make a difference, like Common Purpose, which is very effective in galvanising individuals to see what they can do for their community. There are a lot of lessons government can learn from those bodies and apply in its own out-reach and communications work.
  (Mr Davidson) Another suggestion here is that there needs to be a greater degree of understanding of the difference in culture and recruitment between public and private sector, which effectively deters candidates from the private sector—including many women—from going for jobs. To illustrate that and just to show the breadth of that break, in the public sector typically a briefing pack will be prepared for a job, which it is assumed candidates will ask for; in private sector this is typically not done. In public sector the job will typically be advertised and headhunted as well; in private sector at that level it is just headhunted. In public sector it is assumed that the candidate will do a great deal of research upfront; in private sector that is not expected. In public sector they may be expected to fill in a large application form, sometimes a 17-page form along with a 7-page form that explains how to fill in that form; in private sector this would not happen. In public sector there will be an assumption of preparing a fairly in-depth application, even if this is just a CV with criteria, and a long covering letter indicating why they are fit for the role; in private sector, a one-page covering letter and maybe a two-page CV at the most. Almost certainly in the public sector they will end up with a set timetable finishing off with a panel interview of some description; in private sector the interviews could go on for several months with many one-to-one interviews, and it is very unlikely there will be a panel interview. As a result of this, private sector candidates tend to dramatically undersell themselves both in their applications in going for the post, in preparing those applications and addressing the criteria, and at the actual interview itself because they have not done the preparation. One thing that has to happen to encourage applications here is that we have to help educate individuals in private sector on how to apply for jobs, and we have a role there because if we get an application for somebody who in theory looks good but is no good at the application, we can go back to that individual, explain the process and encourage them to put something more comprehensive in, which may take longer to do but may resolve the situation. Equally, public sector needs to be a little more flexible in terms of its process, and an example would be availability of final panels. I have mentioned typically that appointments will be made at a panel and you will be expected to attend the panel on that designated date. This would not happen in the private sector. There would be a recognition that people are busy and may have other commitments they cannot change. We are just beginning to see in the senior Civil Service appointments some flexibility in recognising that maybe they cannot do the panel on a certain date to allow the candidates to come for the interviews. So we need a little bit more flexibility and more understanding, and some education and encouraging of candidates in how to get through the process.

Mr Prentice

  1297. Mr Davidson, you were saying that non-white women are under represented. Just going back to the position at the CRE, a black man was appointed. Is there a case for positive discrimination, given that there is probably going to be very little between the candidates at that stratospheric level, to bring on, say, a Muslim woman to a very high profile job like this just to send out particular signals?
  (Mr Davidson) I do not think there is any substitute for appointing the best person—

  1298. But there is going to be very little between candidates?
  (Mr Davidson)—and in other circumstances I have seen appointments—I have to say less on public appointments, more in local government and health—whereby if two candidates are pretty equal and one is, for example, a woman, the woman is more likely to get the job in that situation, and I have seen that happen increasingly. In the case, however, that you have identified here, I think those involved should set the policy in that regard. I would be anxious going down the route of undue positive discrimination. For ourselves I do not think we would want to hold that out as a real positive move to our candidates. That said, I do recognise the role model issue that you are alluding to.

  1299. I am not asking you to tell tales out of school or breach any confidences but did you have any applications of Muslim women for this job?
  (Ms Cawley) There was a leak of the shortlist for that post, which did not come from our organisation and is a regrettable aspect of some public appointments, and indeed one Muslim woman was on the short list.
  (Mr Davidson) When that leak came it detailed the short list—which was a diverse short list as it happened—but it also detailed the process in the rigour I have described already.


1   Note by Witness: From the Disability Rights Commission. Back


 
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