Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 140-143)



  140. There is a subterranean row going on possibly between people like you and the Civil Service Commissioners I read from the newspapers and I read a leaked report again in the Times of the Civil Service Management Board, 13 March, where changes were wanted to the way in which senior civil servants were appointed to involve ministers far more. Then the record of the meeting says: "Concerns were raised by addressing this in the current climate" and there are issues about perception and timing. Does this not mean that we would like to do it but it would look very bad if we did it.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not think there is a row. There is a lively debate. There are three kinds of selection processes that I get involved in. They have different rules. When there is an open competition organised by the Civil Service Commissioners, they follow the policy that you identify the best candidate and that is then presented to the Minister and the Minister has to take that candidate or ask for the process to be re-run. The second are the appointments to non-departmental public bodies under the office of the Commissioner of Public Appointments. They have a different philosophy which says that the Minister must be offered a choice. Therefore you interview people and you say "Here are our candidates". If you have a poor field you do not just take the best of a bad bunch. If you do not have a good enough field you do not make a recommendation. Or you can say "If you appoint this person you get this and if you appoint that person you get a different set of qualities". The third is where there is an internal Whitehall competition where you put a view to the ministers and say, "There are two people here we thought were appointable" and the Minister says he would like to interview those two people. He is not trying to get into the people you did not recommend. I have known a case where we put them in the order of One and Two, not much difference between them, and the minister interviewed them and said, "Well, actually I prefer Two" and he appointed Two and was very satisfied with the outcome. These three systems cannot all be right in my view because I do not think the kind of appointments we are making are really that different. If you are making a senior appointment to be the chairman or a chief executive of a major NDPB—the Financial Services Authority, the Housing Corporation, the Environment Agency—you are appointing public servants who have the same set of values, including merit, and you are having people who are being appointed to senior positions in the Civil Service. We have had examples where people have been competing for the departmental job and the NDPB. Sometimes it is the same set of candidates. We need to try to resolve this. Is it absolutely unacceptable in the Civil Service that where you have two candidates who, according to the panel, can both do the job, eg. one of them is a bit more experienced and gives you expertise in this area but the other is perhaps less experienced but has a bit more promise and flair, that the minister can say that he goes for B, while, in appointing to a job as senior as the Environment Agency that is regarded as acceptable. It raises a difference of view. There is a kind of reconciliation. Rule number one is never to appoint anyone who is not good enough; you have to re-run it; rule two, if someone is definitely the best the panel should say that they are definitely the best and the Ministers should not be able to choose the one who is definitely poorer in the view of the panel. Where you have two candidates—and it happens quite often—when neither of them gives you absolutely everything you want, they have different characteristics, I personally do not see what is wrong with allowing the minister to express a view and give a casting vote. We already do that in these major public bodies. There are at least three different mechanisms and we have different sets of rules for each. If we talk about appointing bishops, that would be a fourth system. We will talk these things through and we will come to a resolution. But I do not want to portray this as a row, that is all.

  141. You have explained it wonderfully. But it is the case, is it not, just to sum up, that we have a position where ministers would like to have more choice in these appointments because of their views on the nature of the Civil Service and how it should develop. You would like to see this kind of change. Indeed, you have the mandate from the Prime Minister to put in hand these kind of changes. The Civil Service Commissioners do not quite like it. Everyone is terrified that the press headlines are going to be about the preservation of the Civil Service. So how is all this to be resolved?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No doubt the two Commissioners will read this transcript and they will have a discussion about it. I have already had a discussion with them, but I think it is something we need to resolve. No-one wants—the Ministers themselves in the long run do not want—to be accused of choosing their mates for senior appointments in the departments. It does not do them any good and may not be able to deliver what they want. But are they to be regarded as having no role in it whatsoever, when they do have a role in what I would regard as equally important public sector appointments.

  142. I think that is really very, very helpful and I am sorry we have detained you longer than we promised. I think that reflects the fact that we have had a really quite important first encounter with you. I see from your paper that if I was a Permanent Secretary in the next three years I think I would sweat a little more.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) They have agreed to this. There is more of a kind of performance relationship and they have said that is what they want. It already exists in the performance plan, their setting of objectives, but in the dialogues that underpin that they want to go forwards with that rather than backward.

  143. I think it is extremely important that you have set this three year frame and the programme that you want to undertake. Even if it is not a pledge card it is a prospectus which people will obviously be looking at very carefully. And then you will retire.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I will, yes. I am not going to be chained here forever.

  Chairman: Can I thank you very, very much for a most enjoyable and constructive session and we look forward to future encounters.


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