Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report

Chapter 1: The principles of public appointment

9. This report examines the central issues that have emerged since the previous government adopted the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Nolan Committee)[7] relating to public appointments in July 1995. These issues are:

  • the continuing role of ministers in the appointments process;
  • the scope of independent regulation of appointment to public bodies;
  • the integrity of the system of public appointments;
  • public confidence in the system;
  • the balance between merit and diversity in appointments; and
  • progress on diversity.

10. The Nolan report was the product of widespread public unease at standards in public life. One of the problems was the suspicion that Ministers were politically biased in making public appointments, and 'Nolan' had far-reaching implications for these appointments, as for other aspects of public life. Appointment on merit, with an independent element on all selection panels, was recommended as the way forward for public bodies, an approach that was widely welcomed and largely accepted by government. Today, the majority of appointments to NDPBs—and about half of central government appointments in general—are made through procedures which are based on 'Nolan' principles. As also recommended in the Nolan report, the Government appointed a Commissioner for Public Appointments, currently Dame Rennie Fritchie, to monitor appointments to public bodies and her Office (OCPA) oversees between 11,000 and 12,000 out of some 26,000 public appointments a year.[8]

11. The Commissioner is central to the integrity and good practice of public appointments. The Commissioner's Code of Practice, revised in July 2001, provides the regulatory framework for the process and OCPA's external auditors conduct rolling departmental reviews over a three-year period to ensure that departments comply with the Code and standards of good practice. The Code covers ministerial appointments to the boards of executive and advisory non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), NHS bodies, public corporations, nationalised industries and some utility regulators.

Nolan in Practice: from the OCPA Code of Practice for Public Appointments, 2002

1.  Ministerial Responsibility

The ultimate responsibility for appointments rests with Ministers.

2.  Merit

All public appointments should be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit, by the well-informed choice of individuals, who through their abilities, experience and qualities, match the needs of the public body in question.

3.  Independent Scrutiny

No appointment shall take place without first being scrutinised by a panel which must include an Independent Assessor.

4.  Equal Opportunities

Departments should sustain programmes to promote and deliver equal opportunities principles.

5.  Probity

Board members must be committed to the principles and values of public service and perform their duties with integrity.

6.  Openness and Transparency

The principles of Open Government must be applied to the appointments process, its workings must be transparent and information must be provided about appointments made.

7.  Proportionality

The appointments procedures need to be subject to the principle of 'proportionality'. That is, they should be appropriate for the nature of the post and the size and weight of its responsibilities.

Securing public confidence

12. Some of the seven principles that the Nolan Committee set out to help raise public confidence in public life in general have played a vital role in securing public confidence in appointments, notably integrity, objectivity, accountability and openness. Accountability and openness have been continuing concerns of this Committee's surveys of the quango state and we are in no doubt about their equal importance in appointments to these bodies. It is also vital that those on public bodies demonstrate that they understand the Nolan principles of leadership and selflessness.

13. But one principle, not included in the original Nolan list, is also very important in public appointments. Proportionality must constantly be kept in mind. In other words, the strict criteria, procedures and resources that are properly devoted to a major appointment will not always be right for lesser appointments. There is a danger of 'overkill', as Professor Anthony King, a former member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has warned.[9] This is not to argue for a relaxation in standards, but simply to suggest that ministers, officials, the media and public need to maintain a sense of proportion when considering these issues. We hope that we have done that.

Ministerial responsibility and accountability

14. Appointees play a major role in the governance of Britain. In this Report we do not attempt to challenge that role, or to enter into a broad debate about the respective functions of elected and unelected bodies in public life. We pay tribute to the public service performed by appointees. However the whole process of appointing people to public bodies and their performance of their public duties must be made accountable, to Parliament, other elected bodies, and also to the public. The Nolan Committee recommended that ministers should retain formal responsibility for public appointments, and Ministerial responsibility is the 'first principle' of the OCPA Code of Practice (see panel).

15. How does ministerial responsibility work under the current 'Nolan' process? In summary, ministers play a limited, but influential, role in making appointments. With major ministerial appointments at least, ministers first set out for their officials the balance of skills required for the post on a particular body; and they may volunteer or be asked for any names that they would like to be considered for the post. If any of those named do apply, they go forward along with other applicants and are treated and considered on the same terms as them, under the eye of an independent assessor. At the end of the process, officials give a minister the choice between two or three candidates proposed by the selection panel with its independent element. These interventions raise major issues of principle, including questions such as:

We explore these issues further in Chapter 4.

Diversity and better public services

16. The original 'Nolan' recommendations left another major issue unresolved: how best to combine the qualities of merit and diversity in the way in which ministers and departmental officials appoint people to public bodies. Diversity in appointments is not merely a desirable goal. It is an aspect of the human right of equal worth and treatment that, regardless of difference, should form one of the cornerstones of modern British society. Merit and diversity are often juxtaposed as if they were contradictory qualities between which it is necessary to choose. The Committee's view is that these are qualities that can and should be combined; and we have heard expert evidence that "a more diverse group of people will tend to make better decisions".[10] Such diversity should also lead to greater public confidence in the system, to more effective and responsive bodies—and to better public services. This is a major theme of Chapter 3.

7   First Report, Cm 2850 Back

8   Ibid Rec 32 Back

9   Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life Cm 3447-II paras. 15-19 Back

10   Q 1284 Back

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Prepared 10 July 2003