Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by J H G Woollcombe CBE, Chairman Dartmoor Steering Group (PAP 12)


  The following remarks represent my personal views as they emerged from the process by which I was appointed to the chairmanship of the Dartmoor Steering Group. I deal mainly with the questions directly relevant to this, but I have allowed myself some general observations, some of them resulting from my experience as Chairman of Cornwall and Devon Careers, now Connexions Cornwall and Devon, from which I have just retired.

  The background to the Steering Group appointment was that the interval between a long-expected vacancy materialising and the successor appointment being made was more than fourteen months. The delay was caused entirely by the demands of the vetting procedures as interpreted by one of the two Ministries involved. In consequence one meeting of the Committee had to be postponed and eventually held as an interim meeting with an ad hoc Chairman chosen by the Committee.

  The need for scrutiny of public appointments is not in question, but the relative size of the nut and the nutcrackers seems sometimes to be misjudged.

  In the case of the Dartmoor Steering Group, the purpose of which is to help reconcile conflicts of interest between the National Park Authority and the armed services, I had been approached before my predecessor retired by consent of both interested parties and indicated that I was willing to be considered. One of the two Ministries involved accepted without hesitation that if two parties with essentially opposed interests had agreed on a candidate whose record was known to them both there could be no need for elaborate checking procedures.

  The other took a different view and after a long delay insisted on the intervention of an independent assessor who, once approached, wasted no time in approving the appointment on the strength of my written application and CV. The effort and time expended in the interval would have been excessive even for a much more important appointment.

  My message is that unless the procedures recognise that different appointments need different degrees of scrutiny the resulting frustration is likely to lead to less, not more, public interest in public service.


  Q2 The purpose of most public bodies is to perform a skilled task of one sort or another. Electors are remote from the specific tasks to be performed and ill-equipped to judge the merits of candidates for appointments to such bodies.

  Q4 The main purpose of improving the system of public appointments should be to improve the effectiveness of each body for whatever purpose it serves. Extending the range of people or changing the balance in favour of elected representatives should be looked at solely from this point of view, and the advantages or otherwise are sure to vary with the nature of the task to be performed.

  Q5 If the best source of information and understanding of the task to be performed is to be found in a Government department it would be perverse not to use it.

  Q10 Any political imbalance, however produced, is best corrected by making future appointments on suitability for the job alone. If two wrongs produce a right it is a coincidence, no more.

  Q14 There is no inherent inconsistency between widening the catchment area and the maintenance of standards. On the contrary, failure to search as widely as possible may well result in failure to find the best candidate.

  Q23 It should not be assumed that a standard regulatory framework will have beneficial results. Standardisation of bureaucracy can have a stifling effect.

  Q25 The more important the appointment the greater the need for care and transparency.


  The current insistence on"accountability" is to be welcomed, provided it stops short of continually pulling up the plant to see if it is still growing. It is sometimes overlooked that unelected public bodies, particularly if they are incorporated, are controlled by disciplines unknown to the more conventional organs of national and local government.

  A Board of Directors, an Auditor, the requirements of the Companies Acts and the discipline of the profit and loss account are ever-present constraints on many agencies performing public services. If the services are performed under contract with a Government Department, the Department ought to appoint contract controllers to ensure that it gets value for money—a function not always recognised or carried out effectively.

  If in addition further investigative systems are imposed or artificial standards applied, such as audits of specific functions conducted by specially created bodies, or constructs such as "Best Value" designed for institutions not subject to corporate disciplines, the consequent diversion of effort away from the performance of the primary task can be destructive.

April 2002

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