Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PAP 48)

PREFACE

  The importance of Community Involvement cannot be underestimated.

  The role of those on Public Bodies whether Executive or Non Executive is to bring added value to the structure of Government and to also evidence respect and understanding for the issues that challenge government on a daily basis. The solutions to many of our problems lie within society and thus measured risks that cannot be directly taken by Ministers and their departments but can be cascaded to society via public bodies. This is a vital element of public governance.

QUESTION FROM SELECT COMMITTEE

  1.   What if anything, is the justification for such a large number of public offices (around 30,000) being filled by appointment rather than election?

  Obviously a balance has to be struck between the perceived requirements and the added value to governance by such a large number of public appointments.

  Public Office must be inclusive by appointment via a process that is transparent and accountable.

  Elections other than appointment may not necessarily achieve increased quality or great equity in the process.

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

  Elections may afford the opportunity to those in society who have the capacity to lobby to achieve a positive result and possibly penalise the individual in society who wishes to make a more personal contribution to public life.

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

  No—public bodies require members with adequate skill, ability and perspective to make a contribution to different aspects of the bodies' responsibilities.

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

  The main priorities should be to extend the range of people involved and to improve the effectiveness of the bodies in providing advice or administering services. There is no need to change the balance so that elected national, regional or local government has more of a role in public life. The range of people involved should be extended by simplifying the process and improving the publicity.

  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?

  The present system gives departments too much power to influence the composition of the body through assessments, short listing and selection panel membership. Civil servants who are not panel members may have an undue influence eg by expressing their views either privately beforehand or during the selection process. There is a case for a selection process with the emphasis on independence rather than departmental wishes.

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

  The process of application has become quite intense and extremely detailed yet the intention behind the process is to attract a broad range of applicant and ability.

POLICITCAL INFLUENCE ON APPOINTMENTS

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

  No Comment.

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

  No comment.

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

  The present process is designed to be as transparent and accountable as possible. Evidence of political bias should emerge from the process if it is correctly operated. Merit principles must apply.

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

  No. Merit principles must apply at all times.

  11.   What role if any should Parliament play in public appointments?

  Establishment and approval of the process only.

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

  This should be seriously considered—see answer to question five above. Such a commission would have to be truly independent eg not staffed by civil servants returning later to their departments but with staff who have adequate understanding and experience of the public sector, including the civil service. Its staff should be drawn from different sectors—public, private, voluntary and community—and the commission should not be restricted or restrained by government bureaucracy as many public bodies are.

DIVERSITY IN PUBLIC APPOINTMENTS

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

  Yes—anecdotal evidence suggests that the complicated application forms and processes are putting off significant numbers of potentially strong candidates.

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

  The understanding of "merit" is crucial to increasing diversity. Public appointments should not be made on the basis that if eight places are available, they are automatically given to the eight top-scoring candidates. Rather, a bar should be set and the eight places filled from the pool of candidates who clear the bar—diversity would be a key though not exclusive element.

  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?

  A more consistent use of remuneration for members of public bodies would be valuable in itself and would help to reduce the sense of hierarchy in public service. It would encourage both equity and diversity, making it easier for lower paid citizens in particular to come forward. However, for many public bodies it would be detrimental to have to meet the costs from within existing provision. Central government should be required to make the necessary resources available.

PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING

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

  No. For the minority who are aware of it, the process is seen as strewn with obstacles. The application forms are particularly problematical, being similar to those used for senior full-time posts. This favours candidates who are educated, literate and experienced in senior level positions. Likewise the interview process favours the articulate candidates, especially those with experience of interviews elsewhere. Overall this appears to favour the type of candidates who were recruited, largely through old boys' networks and by word of mouth, in previous days.

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

  Periodic media campaigns could be used, including local, specialist (eg church and other faith) networks and minority outlets. This might be staged so that interested individuals could obtain information as to which bodies would be appointing over the next 12-18 months and make their plans accordingly.

  18.   What is your understanding of the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie?

  No formal briefing has been offered in connection with the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. This is an extremely important role and should be clearly explained to all who hold public office. The Role of the Commissioner in relation to Devolved and Non-Devolved offices in Northern Ireland must also be addressed in the short term. Will the New Northern Ireland Assembly establish its own commissioner for Public Appointments?

OTHER ISSUES

  19.   There are a growing number of sometimes informally-constituted partnership bodies and task forces charged with carrying out public functions, especially at local level. Should these bodies be subject to the Commissioner for Public Appointments' Code of Practice?

  Yes, subject to the concerns about complexity expressed above.

  20.   Are there ways in which the system of independent assessors for public appointments can be improved?

  There is a danger that even independent assessors may develop a symbiotic relationship with particular departments. It would therefore be helpful to approve assessors (centrally but independently); build up their numbers through targeted recruitment with training about their role and context; and rotate them by time periods and department. Ideally, they would fulfil their role with the goal of serving the community as a whole rather than a particular department.

  21.   What is your opinion of the Government's proposals for future appointments to the House of Lords? Should it be treated in the same way as other public bodies.

  No Comment.

  22.   Are there any lessons to be learned by Government departments about the way in which the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales approach public appointments?

  It would be unwise to rule out the possibility that lessons might also be learned from Northern Ireland and the work of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

  23.   The Commission for Public Appointments' remit covers specified Ministerial public appointments and her Code of Practice, which is based on Nolan principles, sets out the regulatory framework for these appointments. Should the remit be extended to all other appointments?

  Yes, subject to the concerns expressed above.

  24.   What is your opinion of the reforms recently introduced in the system of appointments to NHS bodies?

  Again no briefing has been offered or information literature circulated in connection with the reforms in connection with appointments to NHS bodies. Thus no comment can be offered.

  25.   Should every candidate, even important people for high level appointments, be asked to complete application forms and attend interviews in the normal way?

  Yes. This may help to persuade government that the system should be simplified.

CONCLUSION

  In respect of the Public Appointments process, ongoing training and development of individuals appointed to Public Bodies is sadly not evident in the present system. Members of public bodies should be encouraged to attend regular updates, information and training seminars organised on a sectoral, regional and national basis.

  The public appointments commission must also be encouraged to host information meetings in the community detailing the public appointments process and the benefits of serving the community in this way.


 
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Prepared 8 July 2003