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.
2. SPECIFIC QUESTIONS
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
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,
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 moneya
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.