Sir David Normington: The five reasons I'm concerned about plans to overhaul the public appointments process

The outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments Sir David Normington warns that proposals to change the way ministers make appointments to top public posts would represent a step in the wrong direction — and could undermine progress in making sure jobs are awarded on merit

By Sir David Normington

21 Mar 2016

Peter Riddell is the government’s preferred candidate to succeed me as Commissioner for Public Appointments when I step down on 31 March. A  person of great integrity, he will, I believe, stand up for the principle that public appointments should be made on merit. However, he may have his work cut out.

Earlier this month, the government published Gerry Grimstone’s report on public appointments, which proposes fundamental changes, including a reduction in the powers of the independent commissioner. Twenty years of progress is at risk.

The present system was recommended by the Nolan Committee in 1995 under following widespread concern that appointments were the result of political bias. They were clear that ministers should retain the final choice over whom to appoint, but recommended important “checks and balances” on ministers’ “considerable powers of patronage”. Appointments should be subject to the overriding principle of merit; and an independent Commissioner should set standards and monitor compliance. This is the system Riddell inherits, but the Grimstone report puts a big question mark over its future.

Peter Riddell lined up to succeed David Normington as public appointments watchdog
“Serious questions” over shake-up of public appointments process, says outgoing watchdog Sir David Normington

So far, the government has welcomed the report but wisely left space to discuss it with my successor before implementation. In assessing the proposed changes I suggest there are five questions to be asked.

First, what is the Commissioner for? Currently, the Commissioner provides public assurance that those who are appointed to public bodies are up to the job. It is not clear from the Grimstone report how much of this will continue. Indeed the report appears to remove most of the Commissioner’s powers. There is an opportunity to put this right in the implementation phase. A good starting point would be the original Nolan recommendation that an independent Commissioner should “undertake the continued standard setting and monitoring that will enhance and sustain public confidence in the appointments process”.

Second, who sets the rules? At present, the Commissioner is responsible for producing a Code setting the standards against which departmental practice is monitored. The Grimstone model would transfer this rule-setting power to government. Monitoring in future would be done largely by departments themselves, not through independent audit.

Third, who appoints the selection panels? Selection panels are the key to assessing the suitability of candidates against the job description. Nolan was clear that panels should contain an independent element, to increase objectivity and public credibility. Under the Grimstone proposals, panels are wholly appointed by Ministers; the Commissioner’s power to choose independent panel chairs for highly-sensitive appointments (e.g. the Information Commissioner and the chair of Ofcom) is removed.  Panels would also be expected to give automatic interviews to individuals suggested by Ministers, irrespective of whether they match the criteria for the role. 

Finally, are ministers’ powers of override proportionate? In a democratic system ministers must be able to make the final decision on whom to appoint. Indeed, although the recommendation was never implemented, Nolan envisaged that ministers might occasionally reject the advice of a selection panel and appoint someone the panel had not approved. The problem with the Grimstone report is that it goes much further. Not only can ministers ignore the advice of the panel, they can also decide to dispense with a competition altogether to and appoint who they like. The Commissioner is taken right out of the equation.

Taken together, Grimstone’s proposals would enable ministers to set their own rules; override those rules whenever they want; appoint their own selection panels; get preferential treatment for favoured candidates; ignore the panel’s advice if they don’t like it; and appoint someone considered by the panel as not up to the job. The main check on these powers is transparency, but transparency has its limits when there is no-one with the power to intervene if the rules are broken.

All this matters because public bodies spend billions of pounds of public money and touch every aspect of people’s lives – in education, health, justice, the arts and sport. Their boards need to be effective and diverse. Candidates must be confident that they will be fairly treated – otherwise they won’t apply.

As a senior civil servant at the time, I well remember what it was like pre-Nolan. Appointments were made from a narrow circle of largely white, male candidates, known to ministers or to the upper echelons of Whitehall, with no independent assessment of candidates’ ability to do the job. There was widespread public scepticism about the fairness of the system. A step back to this world would be a step in the wrong direction.

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