Public appointments chief flags ‘unacceptable and unexplained delays’ in recruiting major posts

Written by Beckie Smith on 13 September 2021 in News

Michael Gove criticised after ‘avoidable’ setbacks to appointments including new information commissioner and Ofcom chair

Credit: Jordiet/CC BY-SA 2.0 

Public appointments commissioner Peter Riddell has called on Michael Gove to explain how the government is going to address “unnecessary and avoidable delays” to filling top roles.

In a letter to the Cabinet Office minister, Riddell said he was concerned about a “lack of progress in a number of high profile competitions”, which have forced him to sanction extensions of appointments – sometimes without being told why recruitment is taking so long. 

Recruitment processes that have been dogged by delays include those for two major regulatory positions for the technology sector: the information commissioner; and the chair of Ofcom.

“There are two broad categories of delay. First, where a competition has been unsuccessful and has had to be re-run; and, second, where there are unacceptable, and invariably unexplained, delays in a competition,” according to the letter, which was sent in July but was only published last week.

Roles that fall under the first category include the chair of Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority, both of which have yet to be filled after initial recruitment exercises were unsuccessful. Riddell said Ofcom is unlikely to have a permanent chair until at least next summer, and that he may have to green light a second extension of the interim chair’s post, having already signed off on an extension until the end of the year.

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“Ministers are perfectly entitled to reject the advice of the interview panel and re-run a competition. But there are costs,” Riddell said, adding: “Lord Tyrie stepped down as chair of the CMA last September so there is likely to be at least a 15-month gap here.”

Referring to the second category of “unexplained” delays to appointments, Riddell pointed to the slow process of appointing a new information commissioner. 

John Edwards, the privacy commissioner for New Zealand, was named as the government’s preferred candidate for the role at the end of August. If approved by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he will take office next month.  

He succeeds Elizabeth Denham, whose five-year term in the hotseat – which had been scheduled to conclude in July – was earlier this year extended to 31 October to allow sufficient time to recruit her successor. 

Applications for the job closed in April and Riddell’s July letter said at that point, there had been no apparent progress. This meant the DCMS committee had to reschedule its planned pre-appointment hearing twice.

“I have made it clear on many occasions my concern that delays in competitions put good candidates off and can undermine the reputation of the government in making appointments in good faith. Delays happen for a myriad of reasons, and I have always seen the code’s flexibility as essential to provide cover when circumstances call for it, the pandemic being a prime example,” Riddell said.

The commissioner also said ministers had recently asked him to extend the appointment of the interim chair of the Charity Commission, Ian Karet, who was supposed to step down last month after his successor had been found. 

“Vague explanations have been given, when pressed, about why this competition has not completed as planned. This leaves me in a difficult position of being asked to agree appointments where the exceptional circumstances in the [governance code, which allows for extensions] have not been made clear to me, but the body – a high profile one at that – must remain operational,” he said.

He said while he has always “responded positively” to ministers’ requests to appoint interim chairs, and, if necessary, extend their tenures, the current delays “appear avoidable and cut across the ambition in the code to conclude competitions within three months”.

“I look forward to hearing what steps the government is taking to avoid unnecessary and avoidable delays in the appointments process,” he said.


About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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