The Ofsted row obscures some important facts about public appointments

The decision of the Education Secretary Michael Gove to not renew the Chair of Ofsted Baroness Sally Morgan’s contract has created a political row, both between the Conservatives and Labour on the one hand, and within the Coalition on the other. In assessing the row, the Director of the Institute for Government Peter Riddell argues that there are some important facts about the public appointments process which have been obscured by the row. 

What can we learn frmo the Gove/Ofsted row? (Credit: Jaywood UK, CC BY 2.0)

Should we “do our best” to learn from the Ofsted row? (Credit: Jaywood UK, CC BY 2.0)

There are a few key facts you might have missed in the fuss over the decision not to renew Baroness (Sally) Morgan’s contract as chair of Ofsted.

  • The vast majority – around nine in ten – of persons appointed to public bodies declare no party links.
  • The latest figures from the Commissioner for Public Appointments shows that 3.3 per cent of appointees in 2012-13 declared a Conservative affiliation, compared to 3 per cent for Labour (with the balance favouring Labour in previous years), even though the absolute numbers are very small.
  • Appointments are subject to tight rules which allow ministerial involvement, but only in choosing among candidates approved on merit by an independently chaired panel.
  • The most important posts, though in Ofsted’s case, the Chief Inspector, not the Chair, are subject to pre-appointment hearings by a Commons select committee.

The fuss over Baroness Morgan is over re-appointment, not the original appointment, where the rules and processes are tight. Ministers are entitled not to reappoint, but should there be procedures requiring them to explain their decisions? The underlying question is whether the publicity will deter good candidates from putting themselves forward.

The latest row has to be seen in context. First, some supporters of Michael Gove have been critical of Ofsted for its robust scrutiny of free schools and academies, prompting a vigorous response from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the independent Chief Inspector, a more important post than the Ofsted chair. Baroness Morgan, a former key adviser in the Blair Downing Street, has been caught in the slipstream of this row despite being appointed by Mr Gove, being praised by him and being a strong supporter of academies and free schools

Second, the decision not to renew Baroness Morgan’s contract follows similar non-renewal for the chairs of other leading public bodies seen as Labour sympathisers and the appointment of Conservative backers or sympathisers. And the hand of 10 Downing Street has been seen in recent appointments of Tory allies and businessmen. Many Tories see this as doing just what Labour did during its 13 years in office. Ministers also reasonably want allies in charge of organisations implementing their policies but should this extend to cultural and other bodies?

There is no inherent reason why people with party links should be barred from public appointments. In many cases, their experience of public life may mean they are better placed to lead such bodies than those without such associations.

The key question is whether people of talent are picked. The formal process is rigorous, as set out in detailed rules from the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is different from the current, though disputed, procedures for appointing permanent secretaries in that ministers are presented with a choice of candidates and they are involved at every stage. They are not allowed to add or remove a candidate from the long or short list, but they can encourage favoured candidates to apply, who may get on the long list. Candidates have to be assessed as appointable by the independent panel.

Moreover, the top posts are subject to pre-appointment hearings by Commons committees. With a few exceptions, such as the director of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), this does not amount to a veto. While in a few cases ministers have persisted when faced with a hostile committee view; in others, candidates have withdrawn after criticism by MPs. The Institute argued in 2011 for an extension of the power of veto for Commons committees to a range of economic utility regulators, public service inspectors and constitutional watchdogs. The Liaison Committee (of select committee chairs) has been involved in a lengthy, and so far fruitless, struggle with the Government over extending parliament’s role in scrutinising appointments.

Again, with the exception of the OBR, this does not apply to reappointments. Perhaps secretaries of state should be required to explain to select committees why they are not reappointing chairs of public bodies for a second term. And committees might be involved in a more formal process of appraising the performance of appointees.

The latest row underlines the increasingly partisan mood between the parties in which the needs, and independence, of major regulators such as Ofsted can too easily be obscured and brushed aside.

Note: this post was originally posted on the Institute for Government blog and can be found here. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: http://buff.ly/MXsokB

peter.riddell-99Peter Riddell is the Director of the Institute for Government

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