Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Can I just say, I think that is very useful, and I think the anecdotal evidence that I have got would back up what you are saying, that there are people who are politically active who feel that they would be disbarred, and, I think, the point that you make, if you make that more strongly then all the better.
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think my report and what I have said had quite a lot of media attention. I stand on platforms and say so many very positive things, it does not quite attract the same media attention. But I really do stand on platforms and say, "Absolutely, if you are politically active and you have all this experience, please come forward," I really do.

Mr Tyrie

  21. I would be very interested if you could say a little bit more, there is something in the report, about a crucial sentence, actually, in the Foreword, where you say: "It has been clear for some time that the merit principle has been under pressure, primarily from departments' attempts to meet equal opportunities targets and satisfy the requirement for Ministerial choice, ..." First of all, do you think we should develop a comprehensive scheme to remove ministerial choice from a wide range of appointments?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have to say, no; it is not for me to have that view. I have not thought about it. Therefore, the very first principle is Ministers' right to appoint, and if Ministers' right to appoint is taken away it is unlikely that those appointments will then come under my regulation. There are, as you know, some 33,000 to 35,000 public appointments, ministerial appointments, and some 100,000 people who give public service, but only 12,500 come under my remit, and if you took some of those away then fewer would be regulated in this way.

  22. If you link that to what was found in the MORI report, it is a pretty bleak picture; the MORI report is saying that most people think these appointments are politically derived. Indeed, your earlier report on NHS Trusts, although very limited in scope, appeared to support that; you agree that the system is under pressure, but you are not able to come forward with any clear-cut or comprehensive proposal for dealing with it because you agree with the fundamental principle that Ministers should have the final choice?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Not quite.

  23. Tell me where I have got that wrong?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think I do have, together with others, ways of improving the process, and the MORI report, whilst bleak, I think really requires an awful lot of work and information to get to people who have no information, in a way that is not patronising, or so high-faluting no-one can understand it, and I think a great deal can be done about that. So I do think that a great deal can be done. In the MORI report, people said they wanted a fair and open process, and they wanted people who could do the job, above all; and once they knew there was a regulated process they took comfort in the fact, they said, "Oh, we didn't know that, we just made assumptions." I think, in MORI, as with elsewhere, people take headlines that refer to all sorts of appointments, from special advisers and task forces through to all sorts of appointments, and make the assumption that all appointments are the same and all of these appointments are public appointments. On the issue of merit, which you said that I had raised in my Foreword, I do think that we need to look at merit in a very different way. I think that merit has been somewhat limited historically in its use, and merit is somehow seen as having only this kind of experience, or these kinds of bits of paper qualifications, and people with that somehow are more meritorious. And the work that we asked Val Hammond, at Roffey Park, to do was to look at how can we look at merit, and she, and others, Professor Theresa Rees, in Cardiff, also, said, merit is really a socially constructed concept, rather than just a literal translation. So what I am doing on that is working with others to really change the guidance, and, rather than say here are three things new about merit, to write the guidance in such a way that merit can be understood in a much broader way, all the way through the process.

  24. Have you discussed that suggestion with the Neill Committee?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have talked to the Neill Committee, and I have talked to Government Departments and consulted on this quite widely, to say we need to look at broadening the concept of merit, but not, as someone suggested to me, dumbing down the process.

  25. Can you give us some indication of the response you are getting from Ministers and Departments?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Very positive; because Departments, I think, are often in a difficult situation, of trying to look at the targets they are endeavouring to meet, and panels looking at the targets they are endeavouring to meet, and then looking at people who have tremendous potential and a background and track record in quite a different field, that might not be the first thing that comes to mind of those people on the panel. So we need to find a way to broaden the thinking of people when they are making those selections to send to Ministers.

  Mr Trend: Can I come back to the MORI research, and your recognition was low, it is down in the sort of percentage that we, as Members of Parliament, are familiar with, in popularity polls.

  Mr Lepper: Some Members of Parliament.

Mr Trend

  26. As a species, we vie with lawyers and chartered accountants at under 10 per cent; but you were beaten by the Consultative User Group on the National Transport Strategy, this must have been slightly depressing. Was this roughly what you thought would be the result; did you think that was what was going to happen?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes. I did not know what the result would be, but I did not think that if I said the Commissioner for Public Appointments, or OCPA, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, anybody would know what that was, because when I first took up this role people said, "You're going to be a what?" And so I recognised it was not going to be overwhelmingly high. But I have found, in the last 18 months, well, 20 months, since I have been doing this role, quite a change in recognition. And what I wanted to do with MORI was to benchmark. How can we know we have improved unless we have taken stock of what the view is now, and what people's concerns are about what needs to be improved; and so that, in a way, sets the agenda for me, but also for a whole range of other people in the Public Appointments Unit, in Government Departments and others, to say these are the things we have to do something about.

  27. Do you think part of this was a perception that politics itself is suffering from some malaise, and, therefore, anything with a `p' in it is likely to be part of that malaise?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I do not know. I think it says something about public service, that, for a whole range of reasons, people who traditionally gave public service might not have the time or inclination to do so now. Certainly, organisations who have gone into all the `re-ing' that has been going on in organisations; that is the sort of reforming, re-engineering, restructuring, means that organisations have flattened and there are fewer people with any spare capacity to do anything. And younger people do not know much about public service. I know that you might well know 50 young people who know a lot. But, during Public Service Week, I have just been to Manchester, to Belfast, to Glasgow, to Edinburgh, I was in Wrexham, and there was an event in Cardiff. In Scotland I met with some young people from the Youth Parliament, and the youth sector, and they were saying, "Well, how do we know about this? It isn't in our citizenship or civics classes in school; we don't know about these kinds of things." So I think what needs to be done is not so much a big marketing or PR job but a really long-term, `surround the goal' strategy, of making people more aware how they might give public service, and making it easier for them to come forward and do so, from all different walks of life and at all stages in life.

  28. You suggest in your report that it might be part of the National Curriculum. I dare say lots and lots of bodies wish to have knowledge about themselves made part of the National Curriculum, I do not think there is a Department somewhere which sifts these through, and civics is taught in some schools these days. Have you tried to advance your claim that it should be part of the National Curriculum, in a particular, crafty way?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes. It is not so much that people should know about this office, but that people should know about public service. And one of the things we did in Manchester, at the opening of Public Service Week, was to invite sixth-formers to come and take part in being on a board; so we had a number of case studies—and, to Members who are interested, I am very happy to send you the case studies—and you sat down, seven or eight people round a table, and the case study said, "You are on a board, you are on a rent assessment panel, you are a school governor; and this is the issue, discuss and come up with something." And afterwards they were saying, "So that's what it's about; we thought it was all about speaking through the Chair, going to committees, reading difficult papers," and what we were saying was, it is actually about coming to commonsense understanding of issues that are going to affect people in their communities and coming up with ways of deciding how to do something about them.

  29. We have so many `weeks', these days, each adorned with a pretty ribbon. I sometimes wonder if—did you feel that your Public Service Week was worthwhile, you may do it again; what did you learn from it?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I do feel it was worthwhile. If I can just say, in relation to those case studies, one of the things that we did, as we went round, was to have seminars of people who have an interest in either disability, race or gender, and a whole range of people, to discuss what we could do to make public service easier, more accessible, and so on; so part of it was about listening. And there have been suggestions, in relation to employers, that we should be saying to some of the big employers, as well as having Investors In People, you could have something that says, "Here's a stamp you can put on," and have a badge, to say, "We support, enable our employees to go out and give public service." But someone also suggested that we take these case studies and make them more available for teachers, in teaching, not just in civics, but in how to answer difficult questions. So we are going to look at a whole range of suggestions. And I recognise that there are lots of `weeks', because I buy all the badges and the pins, every week.

  30. Are you intending to make this an annual initiative?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I hope so. I hope so; because the results of what we did were so very positive. But what I need to do now, with colleagues from the Public Appointments Unit, and then talking to wider groups, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the EOC, and others, is to say, of these things, what is do-able and how might we actually put some of them into practice, before we go out and exhort yet more people to come forward.

  31. These shadowing projects, are these set up by you, are you running these 120, your office is administering them?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes.

  32. Is that ongoing, will there be more, or is that part of the `week'?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) It was part of the `week', but in other countries they did not start till after the `week', and what I did was write to the Chairs of all the bodies that come under my remit and say, "I am hoping to let people who are interested to know more about public appointments, but have not yet applied for anything, have a feeling about what boards are about. Would you be prepared to have someone attend a board meeting, or shadow you or a board member?" And I was overwhelmed by the number of people who wrote back and said, "Absolutely; yes." And if they said, "Look, our meetings will be rather boring, because they're technical, but we will set up a special meeting." Then I wrote to lots of different groups, saying, "Are there any people there who would like to know more about public appointments, and be shadows?" So, once we have done this piece of work, I expect up to a couple of hundred people will shadow. We have got questionnaires for both, that say, "How was it for you?" and "Will you go forward?" and "Are there things you still think you need to know and do more about?" Once we evaluate them, to see if it is successful, then we might look to see how, particularly for groups that are so underrepresented, we might continue; but we need to assess its success first.

  33. According to the MORI work, the public clearly think that public appointments are murky. Was there any sense of how the public regarded your office?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) The sense was, they did not know about it.

  34. I accept that.
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) When it was explained to them, they said, "Well, why didn't we know anything about it?"

  35. And you feel they believe you? I ask that kindly.
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Of course, I was not there. MORI ran it, and we were able to read transcripts about the views expressed.

  36. And when you go on these `weeks' and meet people?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) When I go on the `weeks' and meet people; yes, I think that people generally are glad that there is a proper regulatory body that is there to ensure there is a fair process, and that they have somewhere to complain to if they do not think they were treated well.

  37. Another thing you mention, which you think might, I think, if I am interpreting it right, encourage people, is remuneration, increasing remuneration; how does that work, in your mind?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) If I may, I will answer it in two parts. The first is to say that my job is the process, to regulate the process, and not to make suggestions about how much people should be paid, or if they should be paid. However, what I can say, in listening to people about what prevents them coming forward, is that people have come to me and said, "It's actually very difficult for me to do this, because I'd lose my disability pension; so it's very difficult for me to do this, unless there are things there that would help me do it." And others, who say, "I can't do it, because I'm a small business, a self-employed person, and my business would suffer." No-one has suggested, ever, to me that anyone should be paid large amounts of money, everyone says, with the public service ethos, of course, that must be taken into account, and some people say, of course, there should be no money at all; however, others say, that precludes some people applying. So I can only report what people say to me. But then it is a matter not for me, because my role finishes once people are appointed; but it is a matter for me, I think, to report what I hear, in the right places, and I have done so to Government Departments.

  38. I am sure these are very useful, anecdotal observations from someone who is very close to this. Can I ask, finally, does it ever strike you, with any of these bodies, particularly the more contentious ones, that it might be simpler and clearer to elect the bodies, rather than to appoint them; are there any examples of that, that you can think of?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) No. I do not know of any bodies of the kind that come under me, where people are elected; of course, people who have been appointed sometimes under their Orders then elect their Chair, so an election takes place within. But, so far, the bodies that I oversee are ones where the job criteria is advertised in one of a number of ways, people apply and then are selected on merit.

  39. I was only asking for anecdotal observations of if, in going through numbers of these bodies, you ever thought it might be better for these bodies to be publicly elected, rather than to be appointed?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) This may not be the answer you would be wanting to hear, but only people who have been politically elected have suggested to me that that is a good idea; the others say definitely not, in the main.

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