Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Paula Ridley, Chair, Liverpool Housing Action Trust,

Chairman, Victoria and Albert Museum (PAP 45)

INTRODUCTION

  This evidence is personal and based on 20 years of public service. For the avoidance of doubt, I have always had a "proper" job alongside my other responsibilities, working in urban regeneration, economic development and television, and am currently the Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).

  I have shared this with colleagues on my current boards, but the opinions expressed are my own. These questions are timely and difficult, as instanced by their overlapping nature. They cover advisory bodies, executive agencies, the appointment of bishops and local partnerships. My responses are therefore for the most part general, with some illustrations.

  It seems to me that the over-arching issue is that Boards should have the confidence of Parliament. Questions of legitimacy and accountability of non-elected Boards or committees delivering services to the public lie at the heart of this inquiry, and how best this might be delivered.

  Some Departments of State have addressed these issues with their own NDPBs by tying them in carefully to Public Service Agreements and making public explicit targets. The Departments of Health and Education, charged as they are with policy delivery themselves, clearly have close working relationships with their Trusts.

  Another question at the heart of this debate is what are the public bodies for, and what, consequently the role of the Board should be. It seems to me that there is a confusion that Boards are in some sense a Parliament, supervising the work of others. They are not. They are just that—a Board, responsible for policy and strategy. It is because of this that they need a wide variety of skills and experience to contribute to that debate, to help and on occasions to challenge the Chief Executive (and sometimes maybe the Secretary of State), and to make informed judgements on key issues.

  No one Board replicates another in my experience, either in composition or in what they see as the most important issues facing them at any one time. Every Board needs a different range of skills and expertise. But all of those I have been associated with, paid or unpaid, work often beyond the call of duty to ensure that corporately they deliver the best they can in the public interest without fear or favour. This is not an argument necessarily for the status quo—but it is an argument for clarifying the terms of engagement.

  The perceived democratic deficit has been addressed in a number of ways—by new and improved appointments systems, by holding meetings in public, by publishing minutes on the web. Most Boards understand the need for openness now, and transparency has crept into the most extraordinary places, including the Security Service. Government does have a responsibility to ensure that the best people do come forward to serve. However, most of the public would feel more comfortable having the country's leading medical practitioners appointed with no advertisement, rather than the Board of Trustees of the V&A appointed after scrupulous process, serving on the Committee for the Safety of Medicines. Proportion is everything.

QUESTIONS

  1.   What if anything is the justification for such a large number of public offices being filled by appointment rather than election?

  The first answer is that many of these bodies, like, for example, the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, require specialist knowledge of a particular discipline which allows informed judgements to be made in the public interest. The Governor of the Bank of England also needs specialist skills.

  Secondly, many of these operations are running vast businesses on behalf of the state. These need to be run efficiently, effectively, with value for money in mind, and in the public interest.

  It is of course the over-riding connection with the public interest that highlights the perceived lack of democracy or legitimacy when Chairmen and Boards are appointed by whatever method. The spending of taxpayers' money is a serious responsibility, and the days are over when public bodies saw themselves as totally independent of any government influence.

  There is no doubt that public bodies carry out some of the most important tasks in public life. Though the committee on the House of Lords concluded that democracy would be best served by a chamber composed mainly of elected members with a minority of appointed ones, there is no prima facie reason to assume this is the solution to all aspects of public life.

  Many of these bodies, in fact the majority, are part-time. This means that their members will have other professional calls upon their time, maybe related to the work of the public body, maybe quite unrelated. They involve huge commitments of time, generally quite unrelated to the job specification or the remuneration (if any). Which takes precedence in a conflict of time or date? How are we to ensure that the members are responsible and abide by the Nolan principles?

  So far we have relied upon an ethic of public service which has corraled an army of professional help to the service of the state on the basis that they simply wish to serve, whether it is on the board of their local NHS Trust or the Board of Trustees of a National Museum or Gallery. The vast majority served conscientiously and well, though there were some examples in some areas of self-appointing oligarchies replicating themselves. The system of public appointments begun by Nolan and overseen by the Office of the Commissioner has begun to ensure that there is now an understanding that appointments to public bodies must follow a transparent process.

  2.   What problems might arise if elections were held for membership of some public bodies, instead of the current system of appointments?

  For a country which has just begun to experiment with e-democracy, it is difficult to estimate what effect this might have in the future on our democratic institutions. Nevertheless, there is a huge resistance to standing for election amongst many people who currently staff the majority of our public boards. Indeed, these very people have chosen non-political public service as they do not wish to be involved in the cut and thrust of political life. Many, like myself, regard impartiality and independence from political connections to be a critical safeguard.

  Many people would not wish to join the hustings, even if they were not standing on any political platform. There is considerable doubt about whether the electorate wants to turn out endlessly (cf local government); nor how representative electorate or candidates might be. Election is often selection for a very long time, and rules would be required to prevent people from standing repeatedly.

  Calls for elected representatives also miss the point—that members of public bodies are not necessarily representatives. They are members of a Board and required to act corporately in the interests of the body concerned. Posts are filled against specific job specifications on merit. This does not mean, however, that boards should not try to ensure that they represent as broad a spectrum of the public as possible.

  Having said all this, there is no doubt that in a form of participatory democracy, like the Housing Action Trusts, the presence on the boards of elected members of residents groups gives comfort that those interests will be represented. Other bodies have attempted to address perceived gaps by ensuring consumer, patient or other stakeholder representatives are included.

  3.   Should a public appointment be part of an individual's civic duty? Would a system similar to jury service be effective and fair?

  We are all familiar with the lengths people will go to avoid jury service, some for presumably quite valid reasons—that their employment is not secure, that they cannot afford so much time off from running their business, and some because they feel unsuited or unable to manage this task. Though it is believed that one of the Lottery boards is experimenting with this method, it is at the moment an experiment, and presumably will be carefully monitored. On the face of it such a method could not be used to find 30,000 people to serve on public bodies requiring a broad range of specialist skills.

  There are also traditional and philosophical issues surrounding jury service—a system where you are tried by your peers and the State prosecutes, with a potential loss of liberty as a penalty. Indeed, the jury system itself is regarded as inadequate in complicated cases such as commercial fraud, where specialist judges now can sit alone.

  4.   What should be the main priorities for improving the system of public appointments-extend the range of people involved in bodies, improve the effectiveness of the bodies in providing advice or administering services, or to change the balance so that elected national, regional or local government has more of a role in national life?

  The answer to this question must be to improve the effectiveness of the bodies. Otherwise, why have them? They cannot be used purely as a method extending other agendas. Of course, extending the range of people involved in them might well have the effect of improving their effectiveness. The role that locally and regionally elected members might play is often much clearer in local and regional bodies than in national ones, where those members have a close connection with either the advice or services being administered.

  In terms of national government, NDPBs are often connected to government by cascading of PSA targets, and there is a close connection with the sponsoring department approving corporate plan targets and spend levels. Often these bodies are locked in to government priorities and strategies, so nationally elected members who could be pursuing alternative agendas are not appropriate.

  5.   Government departments publicise public appointments, assess applications and draw up shortlists for interview. Independent assessors take part in the process and appointments are made on merit. Is this a sensible devolution of power to departments or does it cause problems and create unfairness?

  If these are public bodies, often charged with delivering key parts of public policy, there seems little option but to make appointments the responsibility of the sponsoring department. Publicising appointments can have the advantage of bringing forward well-qualified candidates who might otherwise escape the traditional search process. Often a combination of search and advertising is the best way forward. Boards themselves should always be asked whether they have a candidate themselves who would answer the job specification. Sometimes there may be an obvious candidate—and sometimes the obvious candidate is the right candidate. This does not of course obviate the desirability for transparency and openness.

  6.   Are there any aspects of the Government's approach to public appointments which appear to be inconsistent or unclear?

  Departmental methods vary—some interview all candidates, some carry out a paper exercise based on the applications received. There are inconsistencies between departments about the involvement of the Chair of the Board on the interview committee. Chairs rightly argue that if they are required to deliver performance targets, they should at least be part of the process, which selects the members charged with doing so. It may also be the case that a "one size fits all" process is not appropriate, given the wide variety of jobs to be filled.

  Effective corporate working involves creating an esprit de corps, which does not mean appointing friends but appointing those with the most suitable skills for the task in hand. Most departments are sympathetic to the problems of Board appointments, and some assessors are extremely helpful in the selection process.

  Much effort is expended to ensure that people do not feel they have been treated unfairly, but perceptions of unsuccessful candidates who may not be appointed or understand the process may exist. It is also the case that the speed of the process (often extremely lengthy) is unsatisfactory, and there is little feedback to applicants.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE ON APPOINTMENTS

  7.   Is there any evidence to suggest that politicians sometimes play an improper role in the current appointments system? What are your main concerns, if any?

  I have no direct evidence of politicians playing an improper role in public appointments.

  8.   What part, if any, should politicians play in the public appointments process?

  Politicians, and by politicians I assume we mean Ministers, should take an appropriate interest in the appointments made to their department's quangos without unduly influencing the process. Many of these bodies are delivering their own departmental targets, so they need to respect and understand the people chosen to do this. This must never mean bringing pressure to appoint friends to important jobs. In many cases, Ministerial responsibility for their public bodies should be seen as a positive route of accountability.

  9.   Is there any evidence to suggest that there is political bias in the public appointments process?

  I have never come across any, but there have in the past been perceptions that Health Trusts has appointees politically sympathetic to the government of the day. I believe the OCPA made some sensible readjustments. (It could of course be argued that if the Government has a radical policy, say for the Health Service, it would hardly be effectively delivered by a Board composed of those who believe it should be abolished).

  10.   Is political bias ever acceptable in the appointments system, for example to correct a political imbalance accumulated under a previous government?

  If there was demonstrable and evident political bias, affecting the work of the public body, then clearly this should be changed. Public bodies should work impartially in the public interest and perceived political bias undermines the credibility of the body and its ability to work effectively.

  11.   What role should Parliament play in public appointments?

  I think there may be a case to be made for a Select Committee to see some major appointments, for example the Chairman of the BBC, or the Chairman of the newly-constituted Board of Railtrack, on the basis that these days both Chairmen and Chief Executives are increasingly likely to be in the public eye, and to satisfy themselves of the validity of the appointments. If this was carried out scrupulously and fairly within a process of properly considered rules, it might strengthen the postholder's position.

  There are though two subsidiary points here: one is that many people who put themselves forward are doing the country a favour, and they could well be spending their time doing other things. Secondly, there are some bodies where this would not be appropriate, and which could lead to no-one wishing to take up the post.

  The real role for Parliament to play in public appointments is in scrutinising the performance of the public bodies on which appointees serve.

  12.   Do you believe that an independent appointments commission should be introduced instead of ministerial appointments?

  Not necessarily. It much depends on the job to be done. Sometimes it might be singularly inappropriate.

DIVERSITY IN PUBLIC APPOINTMENTS

  13.   Is there evidence to suggest that the current system is not attracting applications from the widest pool of candidates?

  I have not seen the lists so I am not sure. Taking on a public appointment is a huge and onerous task, often involving considerable travel and disruption to working and domestic life. Some people do not want to "work for free". It is hard to separate the variables here.

  I agree with Ministers that we should try and find younger people. I am afraid this is easier said than done.

  14.   How can greater diversity best be combined with reassurance that the principle of merit in public appointments is being upheld?

  This is difficult. Most women would not wish to be appointed to any post because they were women, and I imagine the same will be true of BME candidates. There is also the issue of ensuring that there is proper representation of the whole population, some of whom have not had the opportunities to acquire the right mix of skills. To remedy this it has sometimes occurred to me that a "ladder" might be developed, where women and BME candidates were encouraged to join local and regional bodies and trained in skills they might be missing. As they develop, they would then be able to progress more confidently to bigger bodies. It is not helpful to appoint people to boards where they clearly do not have the appropriate skills and feel uncomfortable: this can be counterproductive. Equally, there is also the possibility of recognising that other, less traditional, skills might be useful complements on boards.

  15.   Would a more consistent use of remuneration for members of public bodies help to increase diversity in their membership? Are there any possible drawbacks to an increase in the number of remunerated members?

  The whole question of remuneration needs revisiting. It is totally inconsistent. It might well lead to more diversity—for example, it is hard to see how some people could ever afford to join major institutions which require huge time commitments but which are unpaid, thus tending to perpetuate them as the prerogative of the relatively well-off. Many women need the money to enable them to take on the job at all.

  Of course the drawbacks are that some people could theoretically acquire a number of paid appointments and a concomitantly large salary. Presumably this could be dealt with by placing limits on the amount people could earn? But the other side of the coin is that it is easier to remove under-performing colleagues if they are paid than if they are unpaid.

  It is also the case that public bodies are better served by those in separate employment as they bring a wider experience to the job.

PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING

  16.   Is the public appointments process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open and easy to travel through?

  It is becoming far more widely understood and accepted that there are processes of advertisement and appointment. There will always be cases where disappointed candidates feel that there was a stitch-up, but the process is becoming fairer and more open.

  17.   What improvements, if any, should be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

  In my experience the advertising is done in all the proper places, and people are becoming used to looking there. I assume that advertising is also done in other specialist journals and places where the required target appointees might look. There is though a related problem of raising unfair expectations.

  18.   What is your understanding of the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments?

  I understand her role.

OTHER ISSUES

  All those I have met who serve on public bodies are there to do their best. They work selflessly and are aware of the need for regularity and propriety. They are not on the make or on the take, and over the years have had to put up with enormous amounts of hurtful and unfair press commentary. Public appointees are often doing the country a favour, not the other way round. The lifestyle is not that attractive! There is a real problem in getting good and well-qualified candidates to come forward. In my certain experience, even important people being considered for high-level appointments accept that they will be interviewed and may have to fill in forms (Q25) in the interests of proper process. The real issue we are facing is how to improve and expand the pool of people from which the country can draw.

Paula Ridley

May 2002

  Formerly Board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority 1982-88

    Board of the Merseyside Development Corporation 1988-98

    Trustee, Tate Gallery 1988-98

    Trustee, National Gallery 1994-98

  Member, Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly, 1997-99


 
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