Peter Riddell: Departments should prepare now for impact of Brexit on public appointments

Public appointments watchdog flags likelihood that Brexit will lead to a rise in public appointments and cautions government is already struggling to attract high quality, diverse candidates


By Suzannah.Brecknell

04 Jul 2017

Brexit will create “fresh challenges” for ministers and officials involved with appointing people to public boards, according to watchdog Peter Riddell, as the UK starts to repatriate regulatory and other functions carried out by the EU.

Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, said in the foreword to his annual report published today: “At the time of writing, it is unclear how many new public bodies will have to be created or how many existing ones will have their remits changed.

“Over the course of the 2017-22 parliament, there is likely to be a need for ministers to appoint a sizeable number of chairs and members to non-executive roles to run these bodies.”

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Riddell told CSW he was “waving a flag” to departments, rather than offering answers on how to meet this challenge.

“This could be a once in a generation challenge for them and I want to flag it,” he said, adding that: “It’s like finding good people [for existing boards], you’ve got to have a strategy rather than to do it ad hoc.”

The annual report noted that although public boards are becoming more diverse – with representation of women, black, Asian and minority ethnic, and disabled candidates increasing in 2016-17 compared to the previous year – departments are often struggling to attract a diverse and high quality range of applicants.

 In the foreword, Riddell notes: “From examining departments’ paperwork on competitions I am sometimes disappointed at the quality and range of applicants even for high profile posts.

“This has led to a few cases of no appointable candidates being found and/or ministers ordering competitions to be re-run.”

Speaking to CSW, Riddell said there could be several reasons for this: “Is the process discouraging people? Is it something about the public exposure [of these positions]? These are just questions, we haven’t done a survey to find out.” He added his office would continue to explore this in the future.

He continued that the Cabinet Office is doing good work to make the process of applying for posts more accessible, as well as allowing candidates and the public to track progress of appointments online. The government has agreed that it should take no longer than three months from the end of applications to final decision during an appointment process.

An online tracker will demystify the process for applicants, Riddell said, and has also meant he can intervene with departments if he sees an appointment which is taking too long.

However, he said government must to do more to actively promote current vacancies, and to ensure that feedback to unsuccessful applicants is handled sensitively and does not discourage them from applying again.

Currently, vacancies are listed on the Centre for Public Appointments website each Monday. But, Riddle asked: “Do you want just groupies whose idea of exciting Monday mornings is looking on that website? I’ve been meeting with lots of groups of people who are concerned with getting women on boards, or BAME and disabled people, and that’s not their natural place to go.”

He urged departments and the Cabinet Office to use social media and other networks to showcase available opportunities. “Once you talk about [these roles] people get rather interested,” he said.

The annual report shows that 2,231 public appointments were made in 2016-17, of which 1,275 were new appointments.

Women made up 45.5% of appointments to boards, a slight increase on the previous year, but only 28% of chairs were women.

Riddell said he is encouraged by the fact that women make up 48.5% of new appointments to boards, and he hopes this will in time mean that more women are appointed as chairs.

BAME candidates made up 9.1% of appointments, and 10.2% of new appointments, although as with women, the proportion being appointed chairs was lower, at 5.2%

Progress towards better representation of disabled people in public appointments has been “erratic”, Riddell told CSW, though it has risen by 3.3 percentage points in the last year, with 7% of appointments and re-appointments going to people with a declared disability in 2016-17

“What is encouraging,” Riddell noted, “is that once [for a disabled candidate] you’ve got an interview you’ve got 42% chance of being appointed.”

Statistics in the report relate to appointments made under the 2012 code for public appointments, which was replaced in January this year following the Grimstone Review of public appointments.

The new system for overseeing public appointments took “rather longer than expected” to come into force, Riddell said, thanks to negotiations with Cabinet Office over details of new code.

Riddell’s predecessor Sir David Normington warned that the overhaul outlined in the report by Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone would increase the power of ministers at the expense of the watchdog, and weaken the role of the commissioner to that of “commentator and bystander”.

Riddell said he had secured two key changes to mitigate the risk of improper conduct under the new system. Firstly, the government has re-instated fairness as a principal for public appointments – it had been removed by the Grimstone review. Secondly, there will be more consultation with the commissioner for public appointments before ministers intervene in an appointments. For example, ministers must consult with the chair – rather than just notifying him or her –  before making an announcement if they wish to appoint someone who the interview panel judged unappointable. 

He added that he has been pleased with how the new system has operated so far. "My experience is that both under the old code of practice and under the very limited experience to date under the government’s governance code there have so far been fewer problems than many feared, or had been previously experienced," he said.

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