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Reforming the Appointment Process to State boards - Opinion Piece by Maura Quinn, CEO, IoD Ireland


The Government's commitment to real political reform has been questioned and public confidence has been damaged due to issues ranging from Irish Water to accusations of cronyism. On the issue of appointments to State boards - a thorn in the side of so many Governments for so many years - the Fine Gael and Labour coalition promised real reform.

That reform has been slow to come.

Steps taken to create transparency in the process by advertising available positions, often in a haphazard manner, have failed utterly. Confidence in how appointments are made has suffered greatly as a result. 

As Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin prepares to tackle reforming the process once again - with guidelines to be presented for approval within the coming weeks - the Government must recognise that merely papering over the cracks of a flawed and discredited system will not be acceptable to the public and does a huge disservice to those appointed through the process.

The Government must seize the opportunity to take real and effective action to address the issues that have dogged the appointment process to State boards once and for all. The steps taken now must not simply be reactive in light of recent controversies, but rather ensure that a robust and consistent framework is put in place for the long-term, with transparency at its core. The inconsistency of the current approach does a great disservice to the many well-qualified people serving on State boards, casts a shadow of doubt as to the credentials of every State board appointee and will, undoubtedly, deter qualified and capable candidates from putting themselves forward.

It is such a simple thing to get right, so why have so many governments consistently got it wrong?

For a start, there needs to be full commitment to an agreed, transparent process of appointment to State boards from government, ministers and senior officials. The Government needs to create a level playing field when dealing with applications for State board vacancies - it is the only way to build confidence and trust in what has been a deeply flawed process. The proposal to establish a 'one-stop shop' for all State board vacancies through the stateboards.ie website is to be welcomed.

However, unless such a process is fully implemented and stringently adhered to, we will see the same cycle repeat itself. Committing to creating a 'one-stop shop' as to how applications for State board positions will be received is one thing, ensuring that they are fairly reviewed and assessed is quite another. Appointments to all boards should always be made on the basis of merit and candidates having the skills required by the board - this should be the primary motivation and consideration for all boards, State or otherwise.

By requiring the chairperson of every state board to develop a skills matrix, clearly defining any skills shortages or gaps on the board, there will be a clear and consistent rationale behind the appointment of board members. And it is the view of the Institute of Directors that a dedicated panel should be formed under the aegis of the Public Appointments Service, which would be specifically tasked with considering applications for state board positions and short-listing suitable candidates against the skills criteria of the particular state board.

All applications, including those nominated by a minister, should go through the dedicated state boards website and only candidates who have gone through this process should be considered. Under no circumstances should there be a situation whereby a candidate who did not apply through this formal channel is appointed to a board by a minister.

Key to the effectiveness of such a system is the calibre of that selection panel. It must be, and be seen to be, independent of the political system and constituted in such a way so as to include a broad range of skills, knowledge, experience and diversity and it is absolutely imperative that those charged with short-listing suitable candidates for state board positions, have extensive board experience and expertise themselves. There is no shortage of highly-capable people in Ireland who would be prepared to offer their assistance, pro-bono, to serve on such a panel, in the interests of encouraging openness and fairness in the appointment process.

In many instances, those appointed to state boards in recent years have been eminently qualified, yet the lack of transparency as to how they were selected and appointed has called their credentials in to question. We must create a level playing field when it comes to state board appointments. We need a fair and transparent system that the Government and individual ministers are fully committed to and can stand over.

We need to appoint candidates on the basis of the skills requirements of the board and we need to be confident that those who are appointed to state boards are appointed for the right reasons.

A fair and transparent system is the right thing to do. Let's hope that the Government gets it right this time.

Maura Quinn, Chief Executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland. 

This opinion piece featured in the Irish Independent on 31st October 2014.