Wanted: child abuse inquiry chair … third time lucky?

Making appointments in public is demanding and is not just a challenge that faces government ministers. Many organisations find themselves needing to appoint to key positions in circumstances where there are complex stakeholders to be navigated. Add to that the inevitable media interest and you have the recipe for a process which can easily go wrong. What can be done to mitigate the inevitable downside risk and maximise the potential for a successful appointment?

The job description for the role of Chair of the Independent Panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse calls for an unusual array of skills and experience. Not assisted by terms of reference which some believe are not strong enough, the quasi-judicial nature of the role would likely be outside the capability of someone who is not a judge. As a minimum, a legal mind is called for. The nature of the inquiry almost certainly calls for a woman, although it might not be politically correct to state that, thereby reducing the candidate pool by half. Prior experience of work in analogous areas of inquiry, although not essential, is a decisive factor in considering candidates.

The ability to carry the confidence of stakeholders (in particular victims and victim groups) seems to be the paramount test. Personal qualities demanded include strength of character to report back fearlessly to the British Home Secretary and handling the media adroitly. Independence of mind is a paramount requirement for all inquiry teams, but this one unusually calls for a chairperson so independent (notably of an Establishment which may have abetted the furtherance of child abuse through not acting properly on information) that the Inquiry was likely deprived of otherwise excellent candidates from the outset.

The first appointment of Baroness Butler-Sloss was something of a no-brainer. Brilliant, fearless and with direct experience at the most senior levels of this kind of work, she was tailor-made for the role. The second attempt with Fiona Wolf had merit, but was always going to be second best on a shortlist that had contained Butler-Sloss. That both appointments failed through associations and relationships that failed public scrutiny after each announcement raises the question as to whether steps should have been taken to weigh these factors in advance and attempt to gauge stakeholder views and media comment.

For certain public appointments, there are mandatory pre-appointment hearings by a select committee. These need not diminish the power of patronage but it is clear that had this machinery been voluntarily used with this appointment the outcomes might have been different. Bridgewater Leadership invites all its clients to apply the ‘press announcement’ test as finalist candidates are considered. What will the informed person on the Clapham omnibus make of the appointment? Will it carry the confidence of stakeholders? Do the qualities and track record of the successful candidate add up to a clearly intelligible and strong appointment?

Public appointments have the more decisive feature that the power of patronage over the appointment is stronger. What should clients do when they need to make an appointment where the appointing body is a large council or board? The short answer is that the process needs to carry the confidence of all the stakeholders. In order for that to happen, the prospectus needs to be an agreed one, there should be open and honest debate from the start on the kind of person being sought and all candidate ideas and suggestions should be vigorously followed up. The decision on who to call for shortlist interviews needs to be taken by the full council and no decision should be taken on the preferred finalist candidate unless there has been a formal interview at which all stakeholders are invited to be present. Much depends on the quality of the chairperson at this point as to how the candidates are handled and how the final decision is made.

Bridgewater Leadership believes that the best appointments are usually made with the benefit of a robust, transparent process, but ultimately it is not possible to mitigate all the risks. In the final analysis, the appointing body needs to take collective responsibility for the appointment.

Anthony Archer
November 2014

Anthony Archer is Managing Partner of Bridgewater Leadership Advisory, a leadership consultancy. He is a former partner of Odgers Berndtson and his earlier career was with S.G. Warburg & Co. Ltd. and County NatWest. He previously qualified as a chartered accountant with Price Waterhouse and holds a law degree from the University of Birmingham. He is former member of the General Synod of the Church of England and of the Crown Nominations Commission.

For further information email anthony.archer@bridgewaterleadership.co.uk or call +44 (0) 7721 504125.