Since 2015, ConservativeHome has run a regular feature listing some of the Public Appointments being advertised. Our hope was to encourage more Tories to put themselves forward for these offices.
This was spurred by a TaxPayers’ Alliance report showing that the Conservatives were punching well below their weight when it came to representation in this important, quasi-autonomous part of the state.
We know anecdotally that some Party members have indeed been spurred to make applications. So too have there been a handful of high-profile successes, including the appointment of William Shawcross as head of the Charity Commission; of Darren Henley as the Chief Executive of the Arts Council; and of Andrew Roberts as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.
There have also been some high-profile failures, including Toby Young’s abortive stint on the board of the Office for Students and Sir Roger Scruton disgraceful dismissal from the co-chairmanship of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission.
Nor is it necessarily easy to get a definitive picture of what’s going on. When Matthew Elliott wrote about this issue a few years ago, sources inside the Government suggested his figures were too downbeat.
But overall it remains a problem, and despite the Party having now held office in one form or another for almost ten years, the trend is apparently going the wrong way. Of the small share of appointees whom the Centre for Public Appointments lists as having “significant political activity”, the Tory share is falling over time – and is particularly dire in the NHS.
This is a problem because, in an era when Parliament is increasingly fond of farming out control of regulations and public funds to quangos, the holders of these officers can wield considerable power and play a substantial role in shaping the character of the state. We should not be surprised that public bodies staffed and captained by various New Labour holdouts should be no allies of a Conservative agenda.
Over time, this issue slipped off the radar as the ministers and special advisers initially tasked with addressing it were reshuffled or moved on. But it looks as if it might be back on the agenda. Last week, in response to a question from Labour’s Seema Malhotra about “what recent steps his Department has taken to increase diversity on public boards”, Michael Gove offered the following answer (emphasis added):
“Annual reports by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Cabinet Office include data on those taking up and holding public appointments. The government has published and is implementing the Public Appointments Diversity Action Plan, available on gov.uk. I will keep this plan under review and the next update will reflect the Government’s levelling up agenda, including regional diversity, and diversity of thought.“
That is surely not the sort of diversity Malhotra had in mind. But it gives us a clear idea of what the Government is trying to do as it gets a grip on public appointments.
Securing both intellectual and geographical diversity are in all likelihood complementary objectives. After the general election result there is a much stronger case for placing Tories, or other right-leaning figures, in vacancies arising both in their regions and on national bodies. But even when applicants from these places aren’t conservatives, they will bring fresh perspectives and help to break up London-centric groupthink.
Objectives are one thing; operations are another. How might the Government go about grasping this nettle?
The first step would be doing more to identify and support candidates, rather than simply hoping that sympathetic individuals will decide to attempt, let alone successfully navigate, the process on their own. This could have at least two dimensions. First, maintaining a pool of potential applicants, keeping an active eye on upcoming vacancies, and matching them to well-suited individuals. Second, offering those people support through the process once they decide to put their names forward.
But such a strategy will be for nought if the Government is not prepared to defend it. Not only will individual appointees likely continue to attract fierce criticism, as Scruton did, but the broader strategy will likely spark a row over allegations of ‘patronage’, as it has in the past.
This will also have several steps, the first of which is careful vetting to make sure that ministers are able to stand behind any future candidate who gets the George Eaton treatment. It should also involve a proper communications strategy to avoid announcing candidates such as Young on slow news days when they might give bored hacks a story.
Finally, the Government be prepared to make the principled case that where a body runs on public funds, let alone when it discharges official functions, it is entirely proper for it to be accountable to the elected government of the day. The quango class is not entitled to the ‘independent’ exercise of state power.
The success of such a programme will be difficult to measure externally, although if the Cabinet Office do oversee a talent-placement effort they will be in a much better position to gauge its efficacy. But should it work, Boris Johnson might finally oversee the bridging of an important gap in the public realm – one that David Cameron ought to have closed.