The Department for Education has been found in breach of the Governance Code for public appointments following an investigation into the vetting process by which Toby Young was appointed to the board of the new universities regulator the Office for Students.
The official watchdog for public appointments said the department had made “avoidable mistakes” including failing to do adequate background checks and not treating candidates equally, and that ministers had interfered in the process.
Young, a former journalist, resigned his post just eight days after being appointed, following outcry over controversial comments he had made on Twitter earlier in his career.
In a report published on Monday the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, called on departments to refocus their checks on social media activity as well as public statements.
An investigation into the interview process for hiring several people to the board uncovered that then universities minister Jo Johnson had asked Young to apply for the role. It also concluded that the evidence indicated that ministers were looking for candidates without “student union ties”, and that “the decision on whether or not to appoint one candidate in particular was heavily influenced, not by [DfE’s interview] panel but by special advisers, notably from 10 Downing Street”.
While ministerial choice and direction are permitted in public appointments, the government’s Governance Code requires them to be made on merit, for the process to be impartial and for all candidates to be assessed against the same criteria. Riddell found DfE to be in breach of the code.
The report describes an “inconsistency” between the background checks done for various candidates, with one candidate for a “student experience role” being subjected to extensive reviews of their social media accounts. There was “no comparable analysis of Mr Young’s social media presence”, the report said.
The Commissioner took issue with a statement made by Johnson in Parliament in January, when he said it was not “reasonable or proportionate” to expect government to trawl through tens of thousands of tweets before making a public appointment.
The report said this would not have been necessary, first because Young’s “reputation as a controversialist” was well known and should have prompted further probing; and second because the “offensive tweets” were discovered just days after his appointment suggesting they were “not that hard to find”.
It also said that “regrettably and contrary to best practice” the panel interviewing for Young’s role, chaired by Sir Michael Barber, was all male. The Commissioner complained of delays to and gaps in the information provided by the department to for his investigation into the appointment.
The report said: “The arrival of social media has both increased the challenge facing departments over due diligence and simplified it. There is much more comment in the public domain but it can also be found via the internet.
“Departments need to take a fresh look at a realistic approach to due diligence, going beyond what has been regarded as reasonable and necessary.”
This is not intended to narrow the pool of candidates for public appointments but to ensure ministers are provided with fuller information before they make decisions, it added.
Jonathan Slater, DfE permanent secretary, admitted to the Public Accounts Committee in January that “due diligence arrangements were not adequate” and he said he was looking forward to the Commissioner’s recommendations.
Riddell commented: “My investigation uncovered a number of areas where important principles in the Governance Code were breached or compromised in the appointments to the board of the Office for Students.
“In my experience, this episode is unrepresentative of the hundreds of public appointments that take place each year, but it is important that lessons are learned – not least so that talented people from a wide range of backgrounds are willing to put themselves forward to serve on the boards of public bodies.”
The Office for Students, which replaces the Higher Education Funding Council, was established on 1 January 2018 and will start operating fully in April.
The regulator will publish the legal framework under which it will operate on Wednesday, and is expected to have greater powers to intervene on transparency and accountability of senior pay in universities.
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.