By Suzannah.Brecknell

05 Oct 2011

The Appointments Commission faces the axe. But chief executive Andrea Sutcliffe is determined to look on the bright side: she tells Suzannah Brecknell what she’s doing to ensure that the commission’s work lives on.

When Andrea Sutcliffe joined the Appointments Commission in 2007, it was an organisation on the way up. Established in 2001 to oversee the process of appointing chairs and non-executive directors to primary care and hospital trust boards, the agency’s remit had been expanded in 2006 so that it could provide recruitment and selection services to all government departments and the newly-created NHS foundation trusts. Sutcliffe’s main task on joining was to ensure the organisation was ready to take a more commercial approach and attract new clients, while continuing to support existing ones. At the time, she spoke to CSW about the exciting challenges which lay ahead, and the opportunities open to the organisation.

How things change: four years on, Sutcliffe is working to close the organisation down. The commission has become a a victim of service reform and the bonfire of the quangos: it’s no longer required because the government’s NHS reforms are set to abolish primary care trusts, while the commission’s work for foundation trusts isn’t substantial or predictable enough to fill the gap. At least the Department of Health wielded the axe with compassion: in its quangos plan, says Sutcliffe, “the sentences that preceded the sentence that said: ‘We’re going to abolish the Appointments Commission’ were as positive as you could possibly have written. It said we’d been an effective body; we’d delivered value for money; we had considerable expertise.” The challenge of winding down a successful operation was, she says “not what I sought in 2007”; but she seems to have risen to it with an attitude of determined positivity.

“You have to be positive,” she says. “Even if you’re crying inside, you cannot share that with your staff.” As a leader, she continues, you must remain “clear and decisive: all those things that you should be anyway, but even more so when you’re dealing with [high] levels of uncertainty.” With the support of her executive coach – “worth her weight in gold” – Sutcliffe has focused on how she can still do a good job in these circumstances. “You get some inner strength from being able to say: ‘Yes it’s difficult, but I’m glad I’m still here and doing this because I’m doing it in a way that I think is appropriate and is helpful to others’,” she explains.

Despite her upbeat attitude, Sutcliffe acknowledges that the organisation has been on a tough journey since last summer: “I wouldn’t kid you. We’ve had a rollercoaster.” The health department’s ‘listening pause’ and consequent uncertainty about the nature and timings of reform in the health sector have had a knock-on effect: the commission had originally planned to close in April 2012, but it’s no longer clear when it will finally wind down. “I wouldn’t underestimate the difficulty that there has been for the leadership team and the staff themselves,” she says – but even with this uncertainty, “there’s an awful lot that you can do to manage such a situation in the best possible way.”

Clear objectives
Sutcliffe often emphasises the importance of having clear goals, and the commission’s leadership team has set itself three objectives to focus on as it winds down the organisation. Firstly, they will “continue to maintain our high levels of customer care and service for as long as that’s necessary,” says Sutcliffe. “We are not going to diminish our standards.” She adds that this objective will be “important for us to inspire and motivate the staff to continue to want to do a good job”.

Secondly, the team will manage the transition well, and look after staff while doing so. Managing the transition has been “about being proactive”, she explains: “We are not sitting there waiting for the Department of Health to tell us what to do.” While liaising with the sponsor department is obviously important, she says: “We’ve got to stop feeling like it’s all being done to us, and [realise] that we can have a bit of control around how we manage it.”

Looking after staff has been in part about providing outplacement-style support to help staff with transitions to other organisations, but also about regular honest communication. “I have been very honest with the staff all the way through; I’ve told them what I could tell them when I could tell them it,” she says. “I’ve told them when I’ve not been able to say something because I genuinely don’t know.” Sometimes, she says, that
has been hard, “because what people want is certainty and on occasions I’ve not been able to give them certainty”, but it has meant that the organisation’s staff “trust what I do say”.

Thirdly, the team is focusing on building a legacy for the commission. “We’ve done a good job,” says Sutcliffe – the commission is an inadvertant victim of bigger reforms – and the team wants to ensure that its good work doesn’t go to waste. The commission is developing a number of toolkits sharing the expertise it has built up in areas such as working within the codes for public appointments, or promoting diversity in senior appointments, and is “working with the Cabinet Office and the Government Equalities Office, with other organisations, to share the knowledge and expertise that we’ve developed”, says Sutcliffe.

Centres of excellence
Another way in which Sutcliffe hopes the commission can share its expertise is through a Cabinet Office project to build a ‘talent pool’ of potential candidates
for senior posts within the civil service. The commission also maintains its own talent pool listing potential chairs and non-execs for the public bodies
it works with, and Sutcliffe had hoped that it would be able to hand maintenance of this pool directly to the Cabinet Office. This now seems unlikely – but
she argues that the Cabinet Office could still learn from the Commission’s experience of working with such pools.

The key lesson is not to view the pool simply as a database, she says: “It’s not just a list of names that you can dip into every now and again. You have to provide a service to those people.” This involves not just letting them know about appointments, but engaging with them to keep their interest and supporting those candidates who are less familiar with the intricacies of public appointments. “These are incredibly important roles; we need the best people for them,” she says.

One possibility is that public appointments may be overseen – or at least supported – by a ‘centre of excellence’ that brings together the expertise of departments which are experienced in making these appointments. This idea was suggested by Sir David Normington, commissioner for public appointments, in a recent appearance before the public administration select committee. Normington is currently undertaking a review of the code governing how public appointments are made, aiming to streamline it and focus on outcomes rather than specifying processes.

Sutcliffe strongly supports the review, saying that “Sir David is heading in absolutely the right direction.” She does, however, note that a shorter code should be “underpinned by some material for people to use” when making appointment decisions. Some departments make very few public appointments, she continues, and may value practical checklists and templates to help them through the process. However, these checklists and templates should not be “embedded in the code” (as is currently the case), because then “if you want to do something a little bit different, a little bit innovative, either you can’t or you’ve got to go through so many hoops that you would be put off”.

The centre of excellence, if it goes ahead, could well provide some of this guidance and support, says Sutcliffe, and she also thinks it could help to improve diversity in public appointments. “The code focuses at the moment very much on what we do on individual appointments, whereas I think that the centre of excellence would be able to think about diversity in public appointments in a more strategic way,” she says.

Strategic diversity
This is an area on which the commission has done a lot of work. If an organisation runs a “transparent and rigorous” appointment process, says Sutcliffe, “there should not be a problem [of discrimination against] diverse candidates.” What matters is ensuring that your candidate pool is diverse in the first place, and that requires a longer-term approach. She suggests there are three ways in which departments should take this longer-term approach.

The first is by “promoting public appointments to groups which don’t necessarily have a tradition of being a part of that”, such as professional women or people from black, Asian or minority ethnic groups. “You don’t do that by just advertising it in The Voice,” she says. “You do that by engaging with those groups and working with them,” so that they are receptive and informed “when you do advertise in specific press”.

Secondly, there’s a need to “nurture talent”, both in terms of the regular engagement and support which the commission provides through its talent pool, and “in terms of thinking through the pipeline: how do people put their toes in the water of non-executive appointments?” The commission has worked with the one-stop shop for school governors and the Charity Commission to promote “thousands of opportunities for people to be a school governor or a trustee, and that’s a really fantastic way of people understanding the difference between what they might do in an executive role and what they might do in a non-executive role”.

Finally, she says, civil servants should make sure “that when those different perspectives end up in the organisations, they are respected and valued. That is something that we need to do more on as we move forward.” Making boards more diverse isn’t about including token ethnic voices, she says; and too often, women or minorities are automatically handed the equalities brief rather than put to work on new services or organisational change.

“We should be valuing people for the broad contribution that they make, and respecting that broad contribution,” she says, adding that chairs – and their supporting secretariats – have a particular responsibility here: they should the business of the board to make sure that everyone is contributing.

New entrants
Whitehall has recently had an influx of new non-executive directors, with departments reinvigorating their boards under new governance protocols put in place by the coalition. Sutcliffe won’t comment specifically on the diversity profile of these boards, saying only that improving diversity is a long-term job that doesn’t end with the first round of appointments.

However, she’s happy to give her advice on how civil servants can best support the new cadre of non-execs: set clear expectations, she says, and make sure board members receive a proper induction. Isn’t it too late for inductions, given that many non-execs were appointed in January? No, she replies, explaining that in the health sector non-execs normally attend a two-day residential induction process three to six months after appointment. “We’ve had some people after that; we’ve had some people pitch up before they’ve even started,” she says. “It may well need tailoring, depending on the length of time that people have been in post; but it is still worthwhile. You could characterise it as ‘board development’, and some of that might have an induction element to it, but some of it might also be about how the board works together.”

With experience of spotting, appointing and supporting boards, I wonder if Sutcliffe has advice for civil servants considering becoming a non-exec themselves?

“Think about what can you do now to demonstrate to anybody in the future that you understand the difference between an executive or civil service role as opposed to a non-executive role,” she says, advising again that school governorships and charitable trustee roles can be ideal starting points for those interested in becoming non-executives. Civil servants are often barred from being on the boards of arm’s-length bodies, she says, but they can join the boards of health trusts – so this could offer another way in.

It’s also important to follow your own interests. “In the main, you’re not going to get remunerated very well, and you’ll probably be exploited mercilessly in terms of your skills, expertise, and time,” she says, “so you really need to be doing something that you’re interested in; that you’re passionate about and that you feel that you can make a difference to. Don’t just pick the first thing that comes along and think: ‘Oh, I should do that so it will look good on my CV’.”

Finally, she advises, do your research. Having identified a sector that interests you, find out about organisations in that field and how they operate. That way, “if an opportunity comes up, you’re not starting from scratch”. While doing this, think also about how you’ll present your skills and expertise. For civil servants used to lengthy competence-based forms, the requirement for a two-page CV can be a challenge, but she emphasises the need to be succinct and jargon-free, and to “think about how you make yourself fit for a different world”.

That final advice perhaps also sums up the journey of the Appointment Commission since she first joined it, and her own journey as she leads staff through the organisation’s final change programme. Making yourself fit for a different world is something many civil servants are considering, whether they expect to leave or stay. For, as Sutcliffe can attest, things in the public sector never stay the same for long.

Becoming more commercially minded
As more public sector organisations seek to sell their products or services to other public sector bodies, what can they learn from the Appointment Commission’s experience of expanding its customer base? “It’s very much relationship-based,” says Sutcliffe, adding that organisations should identify key potential clients and plan how they will build and maintain relationships with them. This “will bear fruit”, she says, but “it may not bear fruit immediately, so you have to have a sustained way of doing that.” Don’t think, Sutcliffe warns, that you’ll have “a bit of an inside edge because you’re in the public sector”. You’ll be competing against private sector organisations with plenty of resources, and clients “have a certain level of expectations that you’ve still got to meet.”

Moreover, relationships are “no good if you haven’t got a decent product”. Whatever you are offering, “pay attention to the small things. Details count”, and make sure you’re always providing a professional service. Understand the real needs of your target market: “Be absolutely clear about what it is that your clients need. What are their concerns? What is it that you need to be providing for them?” Don’t ignore the diversity within the public sector: “It’s not good enough to think: ‘We’re both in the public sector, we’re going to get on fine’. Our predominant work is in health, but we’ve been working with other government departments across Whitehall and so we need to understand what’s happening in their worlds too.”

Finally, as a leader you need to “think about how your staff are going to cope with a different way of working”, both so that you can support those who need it, and to identify “who within your team is keen to develop and change; keen to work in that different way”. Combine this with an assessment of what new skills your organisation will need. Sutcliffe had no meaningful private sector experience, so she recruited a commercial director who could provide the “commercial sense and understanding” which the organisation needed.

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