Public appointments system remains vulnerable to abuse and beset by delays, think tank warns

Sunak has made progress on appointments process for non-executive directors and chairs of public bodies but reform is needed, Institute for Government report says
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By Tevye Markson

09 Nov 2023

The public appointments system remains vulnerable to abuse and beset by delays despite some improvements under Rishi Sunak, the Institute for Government has warned.

The think tank’s report Public appointments in 2023: What has changed – and what still needs to? analyses the government’s responses to key official reports on standards and ethics from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the Boardman review of propriety after the Greensill scandal.

It praises the government’s commitment to hire departmental non-executive directors via the public appointments system and to publish an annual list of direct appointments – non-statutory ministerial appointments that include temporary “tsars” like the head of NHS Test and Trace during the pandemic, or high-profile advisory roles like the commissioner for cultural recovery and renewal.

It also welcomes the Sunak government’s “move away from the more combative approach of the Boris Johnson era”. It says there have been no pre-briefings in favour of preferred candidates, fewer complaints than in previous years, and a “more positive tone of engagement” between government and the appointments commissioner.

However, the IfG says the appointments system still suffers from many of the problems identified in the IfG’s Reforming Public Appointments report, which was published last August and contained 50 recommendations.

It says the system “remains fragile”, as tactics pursued by Johnson’s ministers – such as the packing of interview panels with political members and the use of extensive social media checks or signed statements of agreement with government policy to rule out candidates with undesirable political views – could still be adopted by a future government.

The think tank, CSPL and PACAC have all called on the government to strengthen the role of the appointments commissioner by putting it on a statutory footing. The IfG’s previous report said this would strengthen the commissioner’s ability to “resist executive overreach”. 

However, the government rejected these recommendations and others aimed at increasing the powers of the commissioner to observe and regulate the system.

Another big issue with the system is delays, the IfG said. The IfG has called for the government to systematically identify and address the causes of delays to the appointments process. The think tank’s latest report says the government has made some positive steps, including improving the commissioner for public appointments website and analysing data to find out the causes for delays. But it says the government needs to improve its data collection and provide more clarity on how the system is being administered, and how significant delays are.

In July, commissioner for public appointments Sir William Shawcross told MPs the government is losing “a lot of good candidates” for roles because of recruitment timescales that exceed targets by many months.

Some three-quarters of appointment processes are falling short of the government’s “ambition” for them to take no more than three months from the closing date for applications to confirmation of an appointment. Shawcross said the delays were “intolerable” and “unconscionable”.

“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,” he added.

The IfG says other issues that still need addressing include:

  • Setting out more clearly the criteria for when a job is regulated. At present, board members of executive agencies, like the UK Health Security Agency or Companies House, remain appointed by ministers but without regulation;
  • Publishing a list of all appointments that remain unregulated;
  • Appointing a government chief talent officer to strengthen cross-government talent development and outreach.

Matthew Gill, IfG senior fellow and report co-author, said:  “It is good that the government has set a different tone on public appointments, and that there is now less public debate and controversy over particular candidates for top roles. But more should still be done to secure the system for the future, ensuring ongoing confidence in public appointees.

“The government should strengthen the office of commissioner and reduce the opacity and delays which continue to put off good quality candidates.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We are proud of improvements that have been made to the public appointments system over the last few years, which have been recognised in this report. 

"The UK is one of the few countries in the world with such a transparent, fair and merit-based approach to public appointments.

"More can be done to further improve the public appointments system and we note the report’s findings."

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