Delayed recruitments mean departments could be missing out on top non-execs, report warns

A new study from the National Audit Office cautions that ‘cumbersome’ processes mean government might be losing out on leading technology sector executives and other candidates for key boardroom roles

Delays in appointing non-executive directors to public posts are leaving gaps on boards and putting off high-quality candidates, the National Audit Office has said.

Ministerial churn and “cumbersome” processes are both contributing to delays, the watchdog said in a recent report. Potential appointees are being put off from applying for positions, while others have dropped out part way through the process because of delays, according to interviewees for the report.

Technology executives are a common feature of government boardrooms, with guidelines now advising departments that at least one non-executive board member should have experience of working in the digital sector. Various agencies have brought in non-execs directors from the tech sector with a remit to help drive transformation.

In 2022-23, there were on average 203 days between a recruitment campaign closing and an appointment being announced – far outstripping the 90-day limit set out in the Governance Code for Public Appointments.

The NAO said it could not determine the extent of the delays in 2023-24 as the Cabinet Office does not yet hold the relevant data – including how long it takes to receive approvals from the Prime Minister’s Office for appointments involving No.10.

The report urges the Cabinet Office to “set out what good looks like for the appointments process”, including how long the process should take and how applicants should be kept informed.

It has also called on the department to use a new application tracking system that was introduced last spring to give permanent secretaries regular updates on the progress of appointments and benchmarking information.

The system was launched last April to centralise applications, gather real-time data, and make it easier for applicants to find new opportunities. However, the NAO noted that the system “cannot yet provide the insights needed because not all government departments are adding accurate data to the system or using the system during recruitment campaigns”.

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The report exposes a number of gaps in data around NEDs – including that government does not know how many are serving on all of its boards, including arm’s-length bodies and government companies. While the Cabinet Office and the commissioner for public appointments collect data on regulated public appointments, this data does not differentiate between types of appointments.

And while the prime minister or their office must be consulted on appointments in which they have an interest, the PM’s interest in certain appointments “is not routinely made public”, according to the NAO.

The report recommends that the Cabinet Office works with departments and their arm’s-length bodies to provide support, guidance and sharing of good practice to improve the consistency of approach to appointments across government.

It also says the department should work with departmental appointments teams to understand delays – and use this data to streamline the process – and improve how organisations identify the skills and diversity they need for a particular role.

Interviewees for the report expressed concern that withdrawals due to delays in the process could deprive the government of a diverse range of high-quality NEDs.

However, available data shows the diversity of new appointees has in fact improved in recent years. In 2022-23, 53.7% of new appointees were female 14.6% were from an ethnic minority background – up from 47% and 12% respectively the year before.

Commenting on the report, NAO head Gareth Davies said: “Non-executive directors make an important contribution to the running of government, providing an independent perspective, expertise, and challenge where needed. Government must do more to address delays in the appointment and reappointment process. Failure to do so poses risks to the quality and diversity of boards as well as good governance. Cabinet Office’s new system is a positive step towards identifying where delays are occurring in the system, addressing long-standing issues, and enabling better decision-making.”

Beckie Smith

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