Cabinet Office needs ‘chief talent officer’ for public appointments, says IfG

Think tank calls for raft of changes to restore trust in selection of non-executive directors and chairs of public bodies

By Jim Dunton

19 Aug 2022

Boris Johnson’s successor must adopt wide-ranging measures to improve trust in public appointments, reforming “chaotic” processes and boosting transparency in the process, Whitehall's leading think tank has said.

The Institute for Government has called on the winner of the Conservative Party leadership race – who will become prime minister early next month – to make a raft of changes to boost diversity among appointees and reduce the potential for ministers to appoint cronies to roles.

Its scathing Reforming Public Appointments report cites a litany of problems and inconsistencies with the current way that non-executive directors and chairs of public bodies are lined up and paid.

It flags concerns about politically motivated appointments, failed processes, the length of time appointments take to be made and vacant posts. The report also describes high-profile leaks and disputes over appointments to Ofcom, the Charity Commission and the Office for Students as “corrosive”.

Among the report’s 50 detailed recommendations for change is a call for the Cabinet Office to create a new post of “chief talent officer” with a remit to “strengthen cross-government talent development and outreach”.

It said the chief would have a focus on under-represented candidates and would support departments to enhance candidate care, using data on candidate satisfaction to drive improvements. They would also keep lists of “strong” candidates who should be considered for roles, sharing best practice with departments in the process.

The report, written by IfG programme director Matthew Gill,  said the chief talent officer could seek out the best candidates for roles in a “strategic way” and help to develop in-house capacity, as an alternative to increasing the use of headhunters.

Gill said the report was a “roadmap for change” that either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak should look to implement as soon as possible, with a review in around three-to-five years' time.

“Most people involved in public appointments agree they could work better, but there is less consensus about what to change,” he said.

“The government has begun to suggest some reforms, including the potential publication of a list of unregulated appointments, but they need to go further.

“The new prime minister should pursue reform of public appointments as an important means of improving both standards in public life and the day-to-day functioning of government.”

Recommendations include requiring all ministerial appointments – such as that of Dido Harding as executive chair of NHS Test and Trace in the early stages of the pandemic – to be regulated and removing ministers’ ability to appoint a candidate judged “unappointable” by an assessment panel.

Roles to be regulated would include the post of commissioner for public appointments, currently held by William Shawcross.

Under the IfG’s proposals, departments would be required to regularly publish a list of all their non-regulated ministerial or crown appointments along with the reasons why they are not regulated. It said regulation should be expected where a role is paid or lasts more than a year.

The IfG said appointment processes often started too late and took too long, meaning public bodies struggle to fill key positions in a timely way. It said that as of January this year, 16 public bodies including Ofcom, the Regulator of Social Housing, the Economic and Social Research Council and HS2 Ltd were all without permanent chairs.

The report said the Cabinet Office should issue guidance calling for departments to advertise appointments up to 18 months before the start of the intended term, with new chairs appointed months before their predecessors finish in the case of large and complex organisations, allowing for a period of shadowing.

Departments would also face greater scrutiny if they routinely fail to make public appointments quickly enough. The report said departments confirming fewer than 75% of their appointments within three months of advertisement should trigger the option of a select committee hearing at which MPs could question a departmental representative.

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