The Week

The Week 10 May 2024

Sean Eke

It has been a busy (and hot) week.

Beyond border announcements, an MP defection, a new PACAC chair and GDP growth reaching the dizzying heights of 0.6 per cent, one thing which caught our eye was the Public Accounts Committee’s report on non-executive appointments, based on the NAO’s report earlier this year.

Introduced in their current form in 2010, non-executive directors (NEDs) sit on the boards of government departments and arm’s-length bodies (ALBs). They are a way to bring in significant non-public sector experience — so often a challenge for Whitehall — as well as provide advice to, and scrutinise the performance of, departments and ALBs.

It is therefore incredibly worrying that in 2022-23 it took, on average, 203 days to make a regulated public appointment (the time from a recruitment competition closing to an appointment being announced). This lengthy process is making it harder to recruit NEDs — with the Cabinet Office reporting that on occasion individuals will take private sector posts because they fear that the appointment process for public sector posts will take too long — which in turn is making it harder for boards to carry out all of their governance functions.

Perhaps even more worrying than the delays is the fact that “the Cabinet Office does not know how many NEDs in total are serving on all government boards, including ALBs and government companies”, with the available data not differentiating between different types of public appointments. It is questionable whether Government can reliably monitor the effectiveness of NEDs if they do not even know how many there are.

These two problems — slow recruitment times and poor quality data — were also key themes in our report on civil service talent and performance management last week. Rt Hon John Glen MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, drew on this work extensively during his keynote speech at our Reimagining Whitehall conference on Thursday.

It was welcome to hear about plans for a new recruitment pathway for “experienced specialist talent”, a pilot scheme utilising milestone-based pay for some functions at senior grades, a review of performance management within the civil service and reforms to improve civil servant’s access to training, all ideas mentioned in our report.

Glen also said he was “keen to investigate further” two more of our recommendations: a Mid-Career Fast Stream and an overhaul of the assessments used during civil service recruitment. Two to look out for then — alongside, we hope, a round of reforms to the management of NEDs.

Read of the week…

We have been eagerly reading the Public Accounts Committee’s report on the Department for Health and Social Care’s 2022-23 annual report and accounts .

This contains some seriously disconcerting findings. For the fourth year in a row the Department has not published its accounts until January, ten months after the end of the financial year; £2.6 billion is being spent on clinical negligence payments without an effective plan to minimise further costs; and four years after Covid-19 there is no plan for stockpiling PPE for future pandemics. Addressing these challenges must be made part of a wider effort to reimagine the whole system.