Commissioner for public appointments Sir William Shawcross has told MPs the government is losing “a lot of good candidates” for roles on bodies such as departmental boards because of recruitment timescales that exceed targets by multiple months.
Backlogs in confirming public appointments have worsened in recent years, with three-quarters of processes failing to meet the government’s “ambition” for them to take no more than three months from the closing date for applications to confirmation of an appointment.
At an evidence session for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the work of the appointments commissioner, Shawcross said it was clear that the current situation had a “debilitating” impact on recruitment for important roles.
“Instead of three months it's often five or six months and that’s just intolerable,” he said yesterday.
“The delays are unconscionable and must, must, must be ameliorated.
“People don’t want to wait six months to see if they’re going to get an appointment or not. They’d rather apply for something else.”
A 2019 thematic review conducted by Shawcross’ predecessor, Sir Peter Riddell, found that the principal backlogs in the public-appointments system were towards the end of the process – when lists of appointable candidates have been supplied to departments. According to the commissioner’s most recent annual report, 50% of appointments were meeting the three-month target in 2019.
Shawcross, who took up his post in autumn 2021, said he did not believe there was a “sinister reason” for the current backlogs. But he said departments needed to get a grip on the issue.
“Government is overwhelmed with different work,” he said. “Every minister has a massive amount of work in his or her in-tray and sometimes I’m sure it is the case that appointments do not reach the top of the in-tray quickly.
“That’s something I will continue talking to ministers and permanent secretaries about all the time. And say ‘this has got to be done’.”
PACAC chair William Wragg asked Shawcross whether he could provide a table of departmental performance on timely public appointments. The commissioner said he did not have the information immediately to hand, but would look into whether figures were available.
Departments need to try harder for “best possible” candidates
Shawcross said he was also keen to make sure public appointments processes delivered the “best possible” candidates for each role and maximised the effectiveness of the boards being recruited to.
He said the work would require departments to have a very clear vision of the kind of skills they were recruiting for. Shawcross said his office was looking to see how it could use its annual audit to help drive improvement.
“Departments need to look hard at what’s required. Whether that’s individuals with particular backgrounds, skills or experience,” he said.
“Or whether different perspectives around the table will deliver effective oversight and robust decision-making.
“Over the next 12 months I hope to give active consideration to how the annual audit that my office produces is delivered and how it can help them achieve this.”
“Big mistake” with UKSA appointment process
Elsewhere in the session, Shawcross was questioned about a breach of the governance code in relation to the recruitment process for the chair of the UK Statistics Authority. He originally wrote to PACAC in December last year detailing the issue.
Asked for further information, Shawcross said that after the recruitment process had been concluded it emerged that the senior independent panel member for the selection process had declared political activity that should have ruled them out under the terms of the governance code for public appointments.
“This was a breach of the code, clearly, but it did not invalidate the appointment as such, which has been reviewed to have been fair, open and made on merit,” Shawcross said.
“We have to be more vigilant. We made a mistake, the Cabinet Office made a mistake, and it shouldn’t have happened. The political activity of that individual should have been declared. It wasn’t and it was a big mistake.”
Asked whether new processes had been put in place, Shawcross replied: “Greater vigilance is the new process.”
Sir Robert Chote was appointed as UKSA chair in June last year, however he was not named in yesterday’s session.