NI Commissioner for Public Appointments: “We couldn’t find out how people had ended up being interviewed…”

It’s worth highlighting the comments by the NI Commissioner for Public Appointments, Felicity Huston, to the BBC NI Spotlight programme last night on the NI Water saga.  From the BBC report

Felicity Huston said: “I was a bit shocked about how chaotic it was considering the importance.”

Mr Murphy said he had full confidence in the process.

However, Ms Huston said it was one of several conducted by DRD she had found to be unsatisfactory.

The chairman of NI Water, Chris Mellor, and three other board members were dismissed after an independent review team found there had been major flaws in the company’s procurement process.

Ms Huston told BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme her office had found an “enormous number of gaps” in the process of appointing replacements.

“We couldn’t find out how people had ended up being interviewed,” she said.

“There were missing records about submissions to ministers where advice is given to a minister on how we might proceed.

“I have to say that I have investigated other public appointment competitions in DRD and been very dissatisfied with them.

“The permanent secretary (Paul Priestly) and I had some full and frank exchange of views about how he was running his appointments.”

Hmm… Weren’t they the Minister’s appointments?

Meanwhile, the Independent Water Review Panel‘s reports are “still sitting on somebody’s shelf somewhere”.

Adds  Despite the Minister’s reported comments to the BBC…  As Nevin has noted in the comments below, the NI Commissioner for Public Appointments’ review of the appointment of the interim Non-Executive Directors is available online.  From the review [pdf file]

My objective in reviewing the Appointment of Interim Non-Executive Directors to NIW was to evaluate whether the principles of my Code had been applied.  Having given the Department an exception to my Code of Practice for Ministerial Public Appointments, this exception did not negate the principles being applied.

Having obtained the available documentation and information from the Department my office undertook this review. Unfortunately I found myself in a position were I was unable to form a view on whether the process was compliant with the principles of my Code as the record-keeping was so sparse and had so many gaps. Therefore the only firm conclusion I can reach is that paragraph 3.31 of my Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments – contemporaneous records of all assessment procedures, deliberations and outcomes must be kept – has not been complied with.

The Minister has been made aware of my findings and has acknowledged my concern admitting that the process should have been handled better. Due to my review of the process the Minister assured me that lessons have been learned and has asked his officials to ensure that such deficiencies are eliminated in future competitions. [added emphasis throughout]

Update  One interesting revelation from the BBC NI Spotlight programme was that the contact from NI Water to Water UK on 31 December 2010, to clarify the mutual aid scheme, came after the Northern Ireland Secretary of State had intervened…

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  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The Ministers appointments?
    Well thats not what Ms Huston appears to be saying. Otherwise she would have stipulated that she had full and frank exchange of views with Paul Priestly about how the Minister was making his appointments.
    To what extent are we surprised by Ms Histons candid acknowledgement that high ranking civil servants are making these appointments.
    The entire purpose of a Stormont Minister appears to be to apologise to a Committee, the Assembly Chamber or the public (via TV) about the latest scandal involving their Departments…..the latest being Minister McGimpsey and those unfortunate X rays in Derry or the diagnosis delays in the School of Dentistry. Alas nobody knew anything.Ever. And Minister Murphy and Minister McGimpsey will like as not be there at the movable dispatch box in May……but the civil servants will be advising someone else.
    Meanwhile a public enquiry into how public appointments are actually made and the undue influence of several people would be interesting. It might even uncover some truth to replace the innuendo we have now.

  • Pigeon Toes

    It’s getting rather wearisome having to constantly read about missing files and audit trails within DRD.
    Time and again this has been pointed out, where (somewhat conveniently key records) and correspondence have gone astray., or not been kept in spite of “best practice”.

    Time and again, and cost to the public purse, DRD issue statements about” lessons learned…nothing untoward about decision making,..Blah blah blah”

    The Civil Servants in DRD must be members of The Magic Circle, as they seem to be rather adept at conjuring up reports whilst disappearing the evidence.

    Perhaps Minister Murphy should look towards extra lessons his officials the importance of filing,and record keeping whether that be in Irish, English or Parseltongue.

  • Now Felicity, you’ve seen the resevoir in Silent Valley and you’ve filled a glass with water coming out of your tap, haven’t you? Do you need to know how exactly your glass of water got from A to B?

    Shame on you, have faith in DRD.

    Incidentally any truth in the rumour that Professor Hillyard broke cover only after ten days of being without water?

  • Pete Baker

    Fitzy

    They were, and are, the Minister’s appointments.

    The Permament Secretary would be tasked with running the appointments process to identify suitable candidates for the Minister to appoint.

    The Commissioner’s comment, that “We couldn’t find out how people had ended up being interviewed”, and the “missing records about submissions to ministers where advice is given to a minister on how we might proceed” become significant when you look at those who were eventually appointed.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Bakery,
    It appears to be Ms Huston who is saying otherwise.

  • Zachariah Tiffins Foot

    I can’t really see Minister Murphy being so passive. What can have become of the Shinner project to “put manners” on the likes of civil service mandarins?

    Perhaps the Minister was in the shower (water delivered via his private family borehole) and emerged to find the new board fully formed?

    Can anyone be waterboarded for answers?

  • Nunoftheabove

    This is where it starts…and this is the kind of standard which was adhered to in Dublin and that’s where it ends folks.

    Incompetent Ministers – it happens. Our hopes are not always (often ?) high but we depend on a decent freeish media to expose them and for them to accept the chop when it goes wrong (sometimes..). What I’d like to know is what it takes to get civil servants dismissed these days for incompetence – one would love to see the advice given to Ministers by, er, other civil servants on how do-able that is and how smoothly such a move would be implemented within th…e civil service by the… civil service.

  • Rory Carr

    One thing that I learned in my years in accounting and auditing was that it it was much less difficult to counter a charge of failure to account than it was to counter one of false accounting where the record was there for independent scrutiny.

    “The dog ate my arithmetic homework, sir,” might be a very lame excuse but an exercise book that declares, “12 + 12 = 47”, finds no excuse whatsoever.

    One can surmise all one likes over what missing evidence might or might not reveal but damning evidence stands stark and irrefutable.

    The lesson is: when the rozzers come a-calling, hit the shredder fast!

  • Drumlins Rock

    What I am actually wondering in the whole sage is,
    If Fitzjames’ Horse were attacked by Zechariah Tiffin’s Foot, who would be the likely victors?

  • Fair Deal

    ““The permanent secretary (Paul Priestly) and I had some full and frank exchange of views about how he was running his appointments.”

    Hmm… Weren’t they the Minister’s appointments?”

    Surely the decision of appointment lies with the Minister but responsibility for the administrative process regarding appointment lies with the permanent secretary. Thus if the process is questionable the Commissioner was right to pursue it with the Perm Sec first?

  • Pete Baker

    Fair Deal

    That’s the point I put in my earlier comment.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Laurence Mackenzie had this to say

    “However, he added that he was surprised that two individuals who, he said, had very relevant utility experience and were recommended to the minister for the jobs, were not appointed.”

    I was somewhat surprised at Larry’s involvement, but no I’m guessing he’s letting us know, that he knows where the” bodies are buried”.

    Again, why did the Minister veto the appointment of two such individuals?

  • granni trixie

    Isn’t it a brazen insult to the public to make public appointments worth 18-21K without proper process, particularly when the MInister is appointing someone from his own political party?. Hasn’t he heard of perception of conflict of interest?

    Would also be interested to know the story of how O’M came to leave the Board – was he pre-empting shit hitting the fan?

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.mutual-energy.com/Governance/Corporate_Structure.php

    “Felicity Huston

    Felicity Huston is a director of Huston and Co Tax Consultants. She is the Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland. Previously Felicity was Chairman of the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity and before that was Deputy Chairman and Energy Convenor of the General Consumer Council Northern Ireland, specialising in gas issues. Felicity has held a number of public appointments – including Commissioner for the House of Lords Appointments Commission until September 2008 and is a Trustee of Assisi Animal Sanctuary in Newtownards.”

    Felicity seemingly only resigned this position in autumn 2010.

  • Pete,

    here are two useful CPANI links re. NIW NEDS:

    CPANI review of appointment of two NEDs [pdf file]

    CPANI review January 2011 [pdf file]

    The first report has about 13 pages; the second 1 page. It seems the Commissioner learnt no lessons from her earlier experience.

    The emergency process might have needed a curtailment of advertising and a need to head hunt but surely the rest of the process could have proceeded according to the regulations.

    “6.1 The selection panel consisted of four members and included an official from the Department (Paul Priestly), a representative from NI Water (Chris Mellor) an expert member (Brenda McLaughlin) and the OA (Joan Smyth).” [1st link]

    A similar selection panel could have been used but apparently wasn’t.

    “Therefore the only firm conclusion I can reach is that paragraph 3.31 of my Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments – full contemporaneous records of all assessment procedures, deliberations and outcomes must be kept – has not been complied with.” [2nd link]

    So why did the Commissioner agree to a meeting with Lian Patterson on terms that the meeting would not be minuted.

    Why did the Commissioner have nothing to say about the appointment of the additional interim NED, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, a political associate of the Minister?

  • Cynic2

    Leaving aside NIW, the problem in NI is that the Commissioner doesn’t appoint – she can only monitor and name and shame. If you read her reports its a catalog of inept and corrupt practice in many Departments. Corruption seeps through this administration

  • Pigeon Toes

    “If you read her reports its a catalog of inept and corrupt practice in many Departments”

    Mostly DRD though…

  • Cynic2, the Commission can also have a member on the selection panel – see my 7:39 post.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Actually Cynic the blatant disregard for due process i.e. the bleedin audit trail shows exactly the contempt that departments hold the Commissioners office in.

    It’s high time there were proper sanctions against departments, and indeed individual civil servants who continually make these “errors”.

    Unless of course they are acting on orders, at which point there would be be a resignation and a compromise agreement….

  • Pete Baker

    Adds Despite the Minister’s reported comments to the BBC… As Nevin has noted in the comments below, the NI Commissioner for Public Appointments’ review of the appointment of the interim Non-Executive Directors is available online. From the review [pdf file]

    My objective in reviewing the Appointment of Interim Non-Executive Directors to NIW was to evaluate whether the principles of my Code had been applied. Having given the Department an exception to my Code of Practice for Ministerial Public Appointments, this exception did not negate the principles being applied.

    Having obtained the available documentation and information from the Department my office undertook this review. Unfortunately I found myself in a position were I was unable to form a view on whether the process was compliant with the principles of my Code as the record-keeping was so sparse and had so many gaps. Therefore the only firm conclusion I can reach is that paragraph 3.31 of my Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments – contemporaneous records of all assessment procedures, deliberations and outcomes must be kept – has not been complied with.

    The Minister has been made aware of my findings and has acknowledged my concern admitting that the process should have been handled better. Due to my review of the process the Minister assured me that lessons have been learned and has asked his officials to ensure that such deficiencies are eliminated in future competitions. [added emphasis throughout]

  • granni trixie

    Nevin – thanks for those links – truely shocking. Its as if rules designed to ensure as far as possible there are ‘fair’ appointments do not apply to NIW. As an aside, (and I hope it is not sexist) note that one of the people on first Appointment panel, which is so damning, is the wife of a Judge!

  • Pigeon Toes

    “The Minister has been made aware of my findings and has acknowledged my concern admitting that the process should have been handled better. Due to my review of the process the Minister assured me that lessons have been learned and has asked his officials to ensure that such deficiencies are eliminated in future competitions.”

    And yet on Spotlight was Minister Murphy not insisting that the Interim NEDS Appointment was carried out in consultation with the Commissioner?
    To the average viewer, that would sound like “agreement with the entire process”.

  • GT, in that first report have a close look at the Ministerial and OA roles.

    The Minister must agree the selection criteria and doesn’t appear again until he receives the unranked short list to chose 2 from 3. Compare that with the Lian Patterson letter to the Minister where says the Minister will be given a list to state his preferences prior to interview. conversation with a purpose.

    Patterson refers to an Independent Accessor whereas in the earlier appointment the OA ‘must see the final draft Ministerial submission prior to it being submitted to the Minister. There was no evidence that this occurred’.

    You’d think that several times bitten …..

  • The CPANI OA must approve the role description, take part in the preliminary sift for a short list, see the the final draft Ministerial submission before it goes to the Minister, complete a Validation Certificate for inclusion with the Ministerial submission and be informed of the final outcome of the appointment process.

    As you can see from my first link DRD failed in several of these checks in the appointment of the two NEDS and the Commissioner failed to stick to her guns by insisting on an OA and on the proper procedures being followed. Should she be considering her position?

  • alan56

    The whole farce of ministerial appointments is old fashioned patronage from the ministers. It really needs to change. Other organisations and business’ have to jump through a whole series of equality,fair employment and other hoops. Why should it be any different for the very top jobs that have such power over our lives?

  • Pete Baker

    Update One interesting revelation from the BBC NI Spotlight programme was that the contact from NI Water to Water UK on 31 December 2010, to clarify the mutual aid scheme, came after the Northern Ireland Secretary of State had intervened…

  • Pigeon Toes

    ” Should she be considering her position?”

    Nevin, until there is a full relaese of the correspondence between the Commissioner and DRD, that’s unfair.

    I suspect she was presented with a fait accompli, and really what *teeth” does the commissioner have other than words of harsh criticism?

  • Pete Baker

    “what *teeth” does the commissioner have other than words of harsh criticism?”

    Which have been delivered.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Which have been delivered”

    And which most people missed?

    Two pages?

  • PT, she could have said no or she could have said yes, if certain conditions are adhered to. For example, one such condition would have been an CPANI OA in the process.

  • Pete Baker

    Nevin

    Your criticism of the Commissioner is wrong-headed.

    It’s not her role to anticipate mal-practise by a department.

    Now, if we could focus on the actual topic – which relates to the appointment of the interim Non-Executive Directors.

  • William Markfelt

    “We couldn’t find out how people had ended up being interviewed,” she said.

    Because they weren’t? Conversations with a purpose.

  • Cynic2

    “Actually Cynic the blatant disregard for due process i.e. the bleedin audit trail shows exactly the contempt that departments hold the Commissioners office in.”

    I agree completely.

    And OFMDFM keep it that way and starve her office of money so they can keep on appointing friends donors and party hacks to sinecures.

    Its all little short of corrupt – just like a lot of other things about this administration.

    I suppose she could resign in protest. But rest assured that if she did they would just appoint someone they ‘could have confidence in’ to sit there shut up and take the money

  • Pete, I drew attention to some of the issues relating to appointments many months ago. I congratulate belfastjj for putting the documents he acquired into the public domain and for resisting efforts at censorship. These have shed a lot of light into the process unlike the Commissioner’s one page effort.

    Here’s some more from Malcolm McKibbin dated 21 September 2010 [pdf file]

    INSTANCES OF NON-COMPLIANCE:

    The arrangements for the appointment of four interim Non-Executives in Nl Water, (three Non-Executives appointed on 21/06/2010, and one Non-Executive on 30/06/2010) were not in accordance with the CPANI Code of Practice. Although outside the timescale of the compliance statement, the subsequent appointment of an interim Chairman on 9/08/2010 was also not in accordance with the Code.

    The assessment of the candidates included a demonstrable element of independent participation.

    In accordance with Paragraph 1.10 of the CPANI Code of Practice an exception was requested in advance in writing and the Commissioner’s written agreement was obtained on 24 March 2010. The Press Release highlighted that the process was discussed with CPANI and classified as an exception to the Code of Practice.”

    belfast jj’s Patterson XX [19] March 2010 document to Minister Murphy clearly states that the four interim NEDs included the chairman. Ó Muilleoir was slipped in as an additional NED on 30 June, the very day that the Minister announced the names of the new NEDs, an announcement timed by the Minister to come ‘just before the PAC Governance to be helpful to the Department’. KS, LMcD and PB had been selected by June 16.

    I see no reason why the Commissioner couldn’t have specified the particular exceptions to the code that would have applied in this process. Just look at the high risk failures of compliance she highlighted in the previous NIW NED appointments process even with an OA in position. The two processes are inextricably linked; they are not stand alone.

  • Having seen the program last night and the emails i have The Commissoner Position Untenable – she must go !!

  • Pigeon Toes

    1. Mr G Campbell (East Londonderry):

    To ask the Minister for Regional Development to detail the names of any individuals he has nominated to (i) public bodies; and (ii) arms-length bodies since taking up office.

    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2007mandate/writtenqfora/drd/drdwq4.htm

    Expect it will be …”I have not nominated anyone. The process for public appointments…”

  • [aside]And pigs will fly, PT. Meanwhile ‘NI Water have identified and located a burst watermain on the Flying Horse Road, Downpatrick.’ The earlier story is about the theft of manhole covers in Derry – don’t perambulate too close to the edge of the thoroughfare.

  • The Commissioner has sent me the following message:

    “The link above is to the current Code of Practice for Ministerial appointments wef 01/02/10. Some of the procedures you were referring to were in the old code and so don’t apply e.g OCPANI Assessors OAs no longer exist. ( for a short explanation of why we no longer have them you might want to look at my previous annual reports – also online)”

    The current code carries the reference 09.02.11 so it appears to have been added yesterday, one year on from its introduction.

    Current code:

    “Openness, Transparency and Independence

    2.5 The practices employed by Departments at every stage in an appointment round must be open, transparent and consistent with the recognised principles of open government.

    2.6 All public appointment competitions must include a demonstrable element of independent participation in the assessment of applicants.”

    Any thoughts?

  • Public Appointments Assessors – in a state of stasis – awaiting an OFMDFM decision.

  • “09.02.11 so it appears to have been added yesterday”

    CORRECTION

    It was updated yesterday – some very minor changes to political issues from an earlier upload in January eg ‘Made a recordable donation to a political party’ became ‘ Made a recordable donation or loan to a political party’

  • Pete, in regard to your aside about Paterson’s intervention here’s Lib Dem’s Lord Shutt’s response to a question in the House of Lords:

    “Lord Shutt of Greetland (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)

    My Lords, during the period of extreme cold weather, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland met the devolved Ministers with policy responsibility in this area and offered the Government’s assistance. He subsequently discussed the matter with the Secretary of State for the Environment and with Water UK, and helped to identify additional call-centre capacity to deal with the heavy volume of calls from customers in Northern Ireland who had suffered disruption.”

  • ““We couldn’t find out how people had ended up being interviewed…”

    The Commissioner’s decision to withdraw the CPANI OA’s from the appointment’s process seems to have made a bad situation worse.

    The OFMDFM needs to get together with CPANI to produce the degree of independence necessary to produce a fair system of appointments; we need NEDs who are professionally competent not an exercise in Ministerial patronage.

    The OFMDFM also needs to review the role of public watchdogs – in the public interest. Our guardians need to bark when the thieves arrive, not when the thieves have long since departed with the loot.