A "stale, pale and males" syndrome in appointments here

The stale, pale male syndrome of appointments / Interview - Trevor Birney

The outgoing Public Appointments Commissioner has said that Northern Ireland needs to shake up the membership of boards and commissions here with too many ‘stale, pale, males’ still ending up in the posts.

She said current processes still tended to either discourage or simply exclude people from non-managerial backgrounds but who could still bring value to public bodies.

The system was self-populating, overwhelmingly putting people in place who were mirror images of the civil servants they were governing, she said.

“If people are successful in one public body and then they finish and move to another public body because they understand the process and how it works, they are familiar with it, they speak the same language as people who have drawn up the criteria and are holding the application process.

“This stops new blood coming in and I think the new challenge that we have now is to genuinely bring in new people and make a process that would make them want to apply.”

She said some of the problems were down to human nature: “People appoint people who look like them, talk like them and work in the same environment as them, they are familiar. So then what you get is what my predecessor called, ‘stale, pale males’.

“If you are one and you are interviewed by one, you will speak the same language and therefore you pick what’s familiar to you and that’s the product of all recruitment.”

The Appointments Commissioner's office is dwarfed by Dundonald house

The Appointments Commissioner's office is dwarfed by Dundonald house

She added: “The person who hasn’t spent their life sitting in an office wearing a suit might ask the questions of the board that would challenge the executive because they don’t know how it works, so they don’t know not to ask the questions, whereas if your part of the system you know how it works, so you don’t ask the questions, you just accept.”

Mrs Huston said the quality of public appointment processes varied between and within Departments.

“Departments that have a lot of public bodies, like Health tend to be better because they’ve got plenty of practice at it, ones who only do it now and again won’t be as good, partly because there’s no one in the department that has any experience of running appointments, so they make it up themselves, they reinvent the wheel.

“In a department, one was running one competition and one another, neither ever said, ‘we’re doing this commissioner, and how are you doing it?’ They never spoke to each other; they ran two parallel, not very good processes at the same time.

“This is silos, very much a case of what we have we hold.”

However Mrs Huston does believe the appointments process shows signs of improvement, compared to a few years ago.

“A few years ago a minister was provided with a list of potential appointees to pick four of five out of a list of seven or eight and he said, ‘but I don’t know any of these people?’ That’s the whole idea, so I think that that shows that the system is working.

“There was one case where a colleague discovered somebody had been appointed who hadn’t even been interviewed, because the Minister had been lobbied by an interest group and had appointed somebody that they’d recommended.