Professionals not placemen: how to reform the quango

Huge areas of public life are run by unaccountable 'gentlemen amateurs'. John Viney and Judith Osborne propose radical changes
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The Independent Online
This year public governance has suddenly hit centre stage. The work of the Nolan committee, public anxieties about quangos, and a widespread sense of sleaze at the heart of government have focused attention on issues which rarely come to the public eye.

Most of the argument has been about accountability, as many functions have passed from local government to often shadowy appointed boards. Critics have complained of a "new magistracy" running Britain, of croneyism and partisan patronage.

But from the public point of view we have just as much reason to be worried about the lack of competence in the existing recruitment system as we do about any insidious patronage. By almost any criteria the present system is a remarkably inefficient, anachronistic way to appoint people to positions of power.

Few perhaps appreciate just how much British government depends on volunteers who sit on the boards of non-governmental public bodies such as TECs, hospital trusts, health authorities, school governors and museum boards. Depending on who is counting, there are between 42,000 (the Government figure) and a staggering 73,000 such volunteers who, largely unpaid, preside over the disposal of huge sums of public money.

Who are these volunteers? What qualifies them for public service? Who assesses their suitability and monitors their performance?

The answers to these questions are disquieting. For a start the public cannot even be sure who these volunteers are, for the information is not a matter of public record. We do know, however, that they tend to be male (nearly three quarters), white (ethnic minorities still account for only 2.3 per cent) and that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the South- east (56.6 per cent)

We know too that the Government runs a Public Appointments Unit which presides over the list of the "great and the good", but this is hardly a powerful institution given that both its director and deputy director devote no more than one day each week to its work, and given that other parts of government are under no obligation to follow its advice.

The result is a system that is not just unrepresentative but also inimical to competence. At present there are almost no guarantees that the best person will be appointed to the job on merit. Instead public appointments lie in the gift of ministers, with some 10,000 appointments coming up each year. Candidates are assessed, in many cases, by people with an imperfect understanding of the subtleties of recruitment. To a significant extent, recruitment falls on the shoulders of government officials: how much experience can they have of placing advertisements, conducting a search or of other recruitment tools? Realistically, not much. Indeed there is no monitoring, no training, no serious analysis of what skills are needed. Instead a form of "gentlemanly amateurism" prevails.

The consequence is predictable. Because the system is based on amateurism it tends to reflect who people know, not what they know. By and large, appointments work on the principle of "like appointing like", as civil servants and ministers select people they meet in their own social circles at dinner parties and golf clubs through informal networking rather than any systematic trawl to find the right person for the job. Instead of bringing in a wide pool of publicly motivated volunteers, networks tend to reproduce themselves, with the same few people often stockpiling large numbers of appointments.

So what can be done about the situation? One option is to accept at face value the Government's reassurances to the Nolan committee that it is committed to the principle of selection on merit, and a general unspecified improvement of the current situation. We could then sit back and allow the issue to sink into the oblivion whence it came. Alternatively, we could tackle the problem at source and try to bring some professionalism to bear on the proceedings.

It isn't enough to do what has been done to date: stuff a few businessmen into quangos and hope that the principles of the private sector will mysteriously rub off on the public body. One of the prevailing fallacies of the moment is that business is best and that private sector methods can be comfortably transposed to the public sector. Instead there needs to be a consideration of what skills - over and above efficient networking - are required to run a public-body board. What should be the balance of finance, general management, information technology and communication skills? When we know what these are, perhaps we can try to recruit to meet them.

And it is here, in the actual process of recruitment, that professional standards need to be introduced. The problem in identifying the ills of the current system is the absence of any norm. Recruitment is simply a free-for-all, based on word of mouth and a sense that someone won't do a bad job rather than any conviction that they might do a good job. This random approach must be eradicated and in its place a set of standard procedures should become mandatory, governing every stage of the process. In the first place there should be absolute clarity concerning the role, how it is configured, what is required of the candidate. This needs to be enshrined in writing in a specification. How then can we attract our target population? Do we advertise? Do we search? Are suitable candidates on the database? Here the norms of the private sector can indeed be borrowed and adapted.

Professionalism is often about getting the preliminaries right - putting in the thought at the start of the process. A correctly defined role brought to the notice of a clearly articulated population will yield appropriate candidates. Assessing the candidates is the next hurdle, but again one that can be made subject to procedures and norms. Out should go the casual chat which currently would appear to constitute an interview and in its place should come clear judgement set out in an appraisal that allows the interviewer to defend any judgement made. That judgement can and should be put to the test by the simple expedient of taking up references and, of course, checking the impartiality of the referee. Centrally stored, this information could provide a short cut for a candidate to another appointment in the future. Elementary stuff, perhaps, but not in evidence in the existing system.

Successful candidates, once appointed, should not then be abandoned to their fate but monitored, offered training and assistance where necessary, and kept in view for future opportunities. There is no reason why volunteers should not progress through a clearly stratified system, moving from a local to a regional to a national group. Again, the trick is to put in place a system that is simple and easily followed and not subject to individual whim. The public appointments system - like any other - should not be allowed to atrophy but should be constantly improved, bringing to the fore a highly talented and motivated group of volunteers, drawn from diverse backgrounds to match the extreme diversity of public bodies they will serve.

We cannot reform the system unless we attend to the people who operate it. So, to have more appropriate appointees to public boards, we need to have dedicated people in charge of their recruitment in the first place and an independent, impartial review body to ensure that standards are upheld. Once a new system has been set in place, reform boils down to a simple matter of training and regulation. If we train and monitor those doing the recruitment, as well as those recruited, we will come to see public bodies efficiently managed by the best qualified people. The alternative is to accept the status quo, do nothing, and watch tens of billions of pounds of public money being squandered.

How a new system could work

l Ministerial responsibility to be reduced and a National Council for Public Appointments established, staffed by full-time executive and part- time supervisory posts drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors. Key staff to be selected by a cross-party team presided over by the Speaker of the Commons.

l The council to undertake a review of existing public bodies and those appointed to them to identify different levels of staff as a first stage towards a clear structure for recruitment and subsequent development of appointees. A grading system like that for the Civil Service to be introduced.

l The council to oversee recruitment. A fixed cadre of recruiters to be selected in those departments with the largest number of appointments, and given training. A code of conduct to be put in place and government departments to be audited to ensure they meet it. Best practice to be documented and disseminated around departments. Senior/sensitive appointments to be presided over by the council.

l Mandatory procedures to be put in place to professionalise recruitment. Job specifications, appraisals and references to be standardised. All information to be centrally stored. The use of external agencies such as search and selection companies to be monitored. The development of an internal search/selection facility geared to the needs of public bodies to be considered. A central database of candidates to be maintained and regularly updated. The council to have power to investigate all complaints relating to appointment procedures and to take action where necessary.

l Encourage wider participation, particularly focusing on regional and local levels. Targets to be set to increase representation of women and ethnic minorities and shortlists for posts to be monitored.

l Training, advice and opportunity for progression to be available to public appointees. The council to preside over an informal network of public appointees who can give ad hoc advice so as to pool expertise. Regular reviews of public appointees to assess performance, training needs and suitability for progression.

Modernising Public Appointments by John Viney and Judith Osborne is published today and is available from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP, price pounds 5.95.