NI Public Appointments Commissioner: “Despite all the supportive talk in principle I don’t see any change in the public appointment process.”

When the previous Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland, Felicity Huston, stepped down from the role in 2011 she, pointedly, wished whoever her successor would be “the best of luck”, noting that

She said there were difficulties asserting her role as a regulator at Stormont.

People recruit people who look like them, sound like them and have the same life and work experiences,” she said.

The commissioner said there were other issues about the independence of her position.

“The International Ombudsman’s Organisation wouldn’t recognise my office by their standards as independent as I don’t have proper control of my budget, I don’t have my own staff and I am subject to the same cuts as other civil servant departments.” [added emphasis throughout]

Her successor, John Keanie, has now announced that he is quitting after 4 years in the post, a year early, with his own parting shot.  As John Manley reports in the Irish News

John Keanie said he is quitting as commissioner for public appointments after four years due to frustration at a lack of change in the way quango members are selected.

Mr Keanie has particular concerns about the failure to address the propensity of white, middle-aged males on the boards of public bodies, as well as people sitting on several quangos at one time.

The departing commissioner has highlighted a lack of political leadership from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) alongside the “reactive nature of officialdom”. [added emphasis]

The Irish News report continues

“What is really not fair is the whole culture of public appointments – the way job descriptions are developed,” Mr Keanie told the Irish News.

“The system is filling slots on boards rather than assembling teams of complementary abilities, views and perspectives. That’s intrinsically unfair to the wide range of people who would like to contribute.”

He spoke of a lacklustre response to 26 recommedations he made in January last year for improving the quango appointment process and making it more appealing to females, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities.

In my interview for this post I made it very clear to the panel that I would be measured on diversity but I was appalled at the lack of support that that part of my work generated in the system and I increasingly became appalled by it,” he said.

The commissioner said senior civil servants supported his recommendations “in principle” but took six months to “tell me what I already knew – that all the recommendations were feasible”.

“It’s 18 months since my report was published and all I hear is ‘we’re going to do more research on it’,” he said.

“Despite all the supportive talk in principle I don’t see any change in the public appointment process.” [added emphasis]

Mr Keanie said suggestions that his remit be widened to enable interventions before appointments were made was met with resistance from within the civil service.

“The reaction was astounding,” he said.

“Talk about resistance to change – there is even resistance to constructive suggestions.”

The Commissioner’s final annual report [pdf file] has more to say on the topic of his recommendations on diversity

Lack of Diversity/Under-Representation on the boards of public bodies

This is the area of work that disappoints me most. The statistics for underrepresented groupings, including women, people under 30 years of age, people from our ethnic minority communities and people with a disability remain stubbornly unchanged except for minor fluctuations. On my visits to women’s groups, young people’s groups, trade union organisations, business organisations and third-sector organisations, I get the same message, delivered to me with increasing frustration – that message is that they perceive the public appointment process as being biased against their members, to the extent that many talented people are put off applying for public appointments.

It is rare to get an identical message, on any topic, from such a diverse range of interests, and it is clear to me that these people see no progress by Government and its Departments, on ‘widening the net’ to get a more diverse range of applicants coming forward for appointment. I have to say that I share the frustration of those organisations and agree that little visible progress has been made in the 17 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which was supposed to herald a new era of inclusion in Northern Ireland.

It is clear also that little visible progress has been made by Government on implementing my January 2014 report ‘Under-Representation and Lack of Diversity in Public Appointments in Northern Ireland’.

I presented that report to the Head of the Civil Service and his Permanent Secretaries group in January 2014; in July 2014 I received a detailed response which concluded that the report’s 26 recommendations, for improving the public appointment process, were feasible, but most of the recommendations were listed, by OFMDFM in that response, for implementation in the ‘medium to long term’. It is true that some individual Departments are trying to improve how they reach out to a wider range of potential candidates for appointment, and one Department has declared its intention to strive for parity on boards between women and men, but there is no indication, almost a year and a half after publication of my report, that a focussed, coordinated programme to implement the recommendations is imminent.

That is not good enough. By now there should have been a paper to the Northern Ireland Executive for its consideration, developing policy and actions based on the report’s 26 recommendations, bringing the issue properly into the political and public domain and demonstrating to the public that the Government is aware of the problem and is taking action to overcome it. [added emphasis]

This inaction is unfair not only to potential candidates who are put off applying; it is also unfair to the many dedicated and talented individuals who are appointed, on merit, to public boards, but through a process that attracts so much criticism from so many sources.

I urge the officials responsible for this work to accelerate its progress. Recent communication, to me from the First and deputy First Ministers, indicates that they ‘acknowledge my concerns’, they ‘recognise that some sections of our society are under-represented on the boards of public bodies’ and they remain committed to ‘achieving greater diversity in public appointments’.

On that basis, and despite what I see as being a strong resistance to change which has held back progress for many years, across the tenures of three Commissioners including myself, I continue to be hopeful that the public may yet see some action.

[Hope over experience? – Ed]  You might very well think that…

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  • Brian O’Neill

    ‘a lack of political leadership from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’

    That covers just about any issue in Northern Ireland.

  • mjh

    But Brian there is a difference.

    So many of those other issues are politically contentious and the lack of leadership can be ascribed to an inability to find compromise.

    Yet this issue is politically neutral in terms of traditional divisions.

    Failure to make progress demonstrates simple incompetence on the part of both the DUP and SF. Unless of course they have no genuine concern for the issue of inclusivity of any kind.

    Does anyone know which is the Department which is trying to tackle the issue on its own?

  • chrisjones2

    The attitude is simply that women and black people are a step too far for the Political Culture (or is that Cultchie?) in NI.

    Anything radical would overturn the pork barrel

  • Dan

    Sounds like ‘middle aged and white’ Keanie was more concerned about ‘politically correct diversity’ than quality, and more importantly reducing the quantity of public appointments didn’t particularly cause him concern

  • chrisjones2

    ….or he was fed up with the bias cronyism and corruption in the system