One of Tony Blair's political mentors has landed a pounds 30,000 job in an NHS trust. With no such connections, Jean Shackleton was not so lucky
THE whole way appointments are made to NHS boards is a mystery to me. I have years of experience working at a very senior level in social services and voluntary organisations, but it took an official just two seconds to reject my latest application to join a health trust.

Tory health spokesman John Maples recently accused the Government of manipulating appointments to NHS boards. A spokesman for Health Secretary Frank Dobson replied: "This is not and has never been intended to be a politically motivated exercise to replace Tory deadheads with Labour deadheads." Now Paul Trippett, who runs the Labour club in the Prime Minister's constituency, has landed a pounds 30,000-a-year chairmanship of an NHS Trust

An advertisement appeared in a national newspaper in 1996 seeking Chairmen and Non-Executive Directors of Special Health Authorities and NHS Trusts. No formal qualifications were needed, but the skills required were formidable.

My application was approved and I was placed on a "database" at Milton Keynes. Then, I began to get that unwanted feeling. I was told in a letter dated 30 July, 1996: "When a vacancy arises, the database is searched for suitable applicants. Shortlisting is undertaken locally... a Regional Assessment Panel. The chairman will decide who to propose for appointment from [this] shortlist... The appointment is made by the Secretary of State, who requires a choice of candidates."

To get thus far, I had filled in a large form, sent a CV and troubled two rather highly placed people for references.

My next letter was dated 31 January 1997. The Nolan inquiry and the substantial size of the database were quoted as the reason for keeping on the database only those people who "have been assessed as appointable by the Regional Panel". I was off the list. But I was advised that advertisements would soon be appearing locally. They did and I phoned three local trusts for application forms, each of which had to be returned to its local trust - no mention of Milton Keynes.

In February 1997 I filled in three large questionnaires, attached CVs and troubled my referees again. Two of the Trusts found my expertise not suitable to the balance of interest they were seeking for their boards. The third did not replay. When I phoned, they said they had not received an application from me and had sent their shortlist to the Secretary of State.

One of the Trusts asked if I would help in a voluntary capacity as an Associate Manager reviewing legal status of patients sectioned under the Mental Health Act. I was and am delighted to do so. However, after one year I had been interviewed once, had two training sessions with a third planned, and have attended one review of two patients.

There were more advertisements this year for Chairmen and Non-Executive Directors to National Health Service Bodies. In February 1998, I responded to three local advertisements. All three applications went to the same woman in the NHS Executive at Milton Keynes.

The closing date was 16 February. Two days later the rejection for my application was posted. I phoned and discovered that although the blurb from each trust was different, I need only have filled in one application. The woman at Milton Keynes admitted there was no way of my knowing this. The rejection came so swiftly because an officer had skimmed down a line of boxes on the supplementary questionnaire and had taken out any application where the "community work" box had not been ticked.

Frank Dobson's message about the appointments that accompanied the application forms was: "We are looking for people to be members of local NHS boards who live in the area, who have a strong commitment to the NHS and who have the time and ability to contribute to its success. We are particularly keen to recruit people who are users or carers as community representatives on our boards as well as those with other relevant experience."

The application, however, doesn't state the power of that little box. Yet, I had written underneath it of the associate managership and elsewhere of the community experience one has as a Director of Social Services. Why didn't I tick that box? Sheer modesty, after ticking every other high- powered item.

My complaint about an administrative officer taking two seconds to put me on the scrap-heap means my application has been referred to an independent assessor. But the unwanted feeling is back. Every sentence from Milton Keynes is peppered with despair about the number of applications and the complicated procedures that I am unlikely to surmount.

My experience on joint planning between local authorities and health authorities seems to count for nothing, as does having been a corporate manager of a local authority and having helped voluntary organisations to get their resources up and running.

Meanwhile, I am lost in paperwork, while some spiritual body who alternately dematerialises and materialises in Milton Keynes, picks up the goal posts and runs like hell.