23 August 2022

Reinventing the Blob – putting the politics back into public appointments


One of the biggest advantages enjoyed by the ‘Blob’ – that evocative if tactically counter-productive term for the New Labour-flavoured bureaucratic power lined up against the Government – is its permanence. 

Civil servants, both in-post and in sympathetic thinktanks, are ever watchful of their prerogatives and able to drive forward a case over the long term. Ministers, on the other hand, come and go – and not all of them make getting a grip on a State a priority anyway.

When Boris Johnson entered Downing Street, reform of the Civil Service was one of Dominic Cummings’ top priorities. But it, like everything else, was overtaken by the self-destructive court politicking that dominated Number Ten. Soon enough, Cummings had been pushed out and the agenda was put on the back burner. 

Now his ex-boss is following him out, and the pushback is on. A new report by the Institute for Government, the deniable-operations wing of the Civil Service, has called for new restrictions on ministers’ ability to ‘interfere’ in the appointment of quango heads. Amongst several proposals, the key one is to ‘limit ministerial decision making to the start and end of an appointments process’.

What does this mean? Well, The Times sums it up: ‘[The report] recommends ministers be limited to setting a specification and picking a final candidate from a shortlist deemed acceptable by an independent panel.’

If you can’t immediately spot the problem with this, imagine an episode of Yes, Minister in which Jim Hacker is trying to assert his right to make a public appointment, and Sir Humphrey is insisting that of course he gets to make the decision… from a list prepared by the Civil Service. 

Where does the power really lie? With those drawing up the shortlist. Even if it isn’t subject to the sort of deliberate chicanery on display in the show, it is they who get to define the parameters of the choice available to ministers. 

Perhaps the comparison feels facetious. But in fact, the show drew heavily on real concerns – the famous bit where Bernard suggests the minister simply put his in-tray in his out-tray and have the whole thing taken care of is apparently lifted from the Crossman Diaries. Richard Crossman was concerned about the growth of the State beyond easy democratic oversight in the Sixties, and it has only grown larger and more complex in the half-century since.

Quangos, in particular, are a new sort of problem. Per the above Times report, the row over public appointments relates to ‘the people who oversee £200 billion of public money’. On top of the cash, many also exercise delegated authority to set regulations. 

Conservatives have been pledging a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ since what feels like time immemorial. That it has not yet occurred may simply be another artefact of the Party’s woeful record on driving through structural change, but it could just as well suggest that the ‘quasi-autonomous’ model has legs and is here to stay.

But if so, the organisations controlling such a broad range of authorities (and so large a pot of cash) should be subject to political direction. Ministers can be held accountable for appointments both in Parliament and at the ballot box. An ‘independent panel’ (whose membership is probably drawn up by another layer of independent panels) cannot.

If there is a clash between the political will and the bureaucratic will – and that is the source of the delays currently plaguing appointments – the IfG proposal is basically that it should be resolved against ministers. Ministers should, and hopefully will, resist this.

But the status quo is hardly sustainable. These organisations do discharge important functions, and the deadlock is leaving many without proper leadership. That is a governmental failure, topped in some cases – most obviously the bid to install Paul Dacre in Ofcom – by political failure too.

The clash between ‘the political will and the bureaucratic won’t’ needs to be resolved. But if it is to be resolved in favour of the political will, what form should that take?

One option would be to expand and make more explicit the political character of quango leadership. The election of a new government could open a window wherein they could choose either to affirm an existing candidate in post or, if a new direction was desired, to appoint someone else. This decision would be made by ministers, who would be accountable for it, with the support and advice of as many independent panels as would be helpful.

This would obviously outrage those who object to politicians making such appointments at all. But there would also be practical problems ministers would need to address.

First, it risks what one commentator has dubbed the ‘deputy head of mission problem’. This is where the political appointee in these organisations ends up subject to the same imbalance of power as a minister in a department, with the actual authority accruing to the most senior members of the organisation’s permanent staff. 

Second, such proposals raise concerns that talented applicants will be discouraged from applying either because they don’t think themselves political enough, or simply because the prospect of being replaced when power changes hands makes the jobs too insecure to be attractive.

The latter problem is the less thorny one. For starters, there is no reason for a more political system to necessitate churn for organisations where there is broad cross-party consensus about their operation. It would only arise in cases where a new government differed sharply from the outgoing one on the function of a particular quango – and in such cases, it isn’t obvious why an incumbent’s job security should trump the politics.

The former problem is much stickier, mirroring as it does the minister/civil servant dynamic which has troubled reformers for so many decades. That parallel suggests that quango governance could usefully be included in the scope of any Cummings-like efforts to reform the relationship between government and the Civil Service (if ever the issue returns to the Tory radar).

Perhaps the solution will take a different shape altogether. But whatever that is, ministers are well within their rights to defend, and indeed to expand, their role in public appointments. The endless expansion of the state is a challenge to democratic oversight, and governance on ‘apolitical’ autopilot is inappropriate in cases where the government of the day has a political interest.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.