New rules needed for appointments to public bodies

Public bodies have become central to the Irish system of government, but this is not reflected in the way the boards of these bodies are appointed. A new report by TASC claims that a new system must be put in place to ensure the best people fill these roles, and to combat the current system of political appointments. By Bernard O’Rourke.

Independent think-tank TASC today issued a report calling for new rules to govern appointments to the boards of public bodies, of which there are currently over 600.

The paper, entitled Public Appointments: Options for Reform examines the “ad hoc” and “politicised” manner in which people come to be appointed to the boards of public bodies in Ireland.

According to TASC “reform in this area is urgent, and that the current ad hoc process needs to be replaced with clear rules – regardless of which model or mix of models is formally adopted.”

TASC Director and co-author of the report Nat O’Connor said that “with over 600 public bodies operating in areas ranging from education, health and immigration, to food safety, public enterprise and road safety, the public must be confident that those overseeing such bodies have been appointed on the basis of merit.  In the past, lack of transparency has given rise to suggestions of cronyism and patronage.”

Many public bodies have become central to the Irish system of government since the 1990s and are now performing vital public functions, controlling significant expenditure and employing large numbers of public sector workers. However, according to TASC, many of these public bodies have “developed in an ad hoc manner,” and many are also “governed by boards of directors appointed in a similarly ad hoc manner.” The result of this is a “public mistrust” of this “essentially politicised approach” to the governance of significant elements of Irish public administration, which is further compounded by a “lack of transparency”.

TASC has called for the government to ensure that “as many public bodies as possible are rendered subject” to a legislative “transparency framework”, and also to ensure that “the boards of such bodies are appointed and managed in a way which is accountable to both Government and the wider public”.

TASC examined three potential models for reforming the appointments process, based on experience in other jurisdictions with legal and administrative backgrounds similar to Ireland’s, including Canada, New Zealand, Scotland and the rest of the UK. Key features of reforms in these jurisdictions included “moves towards reducing discretionary ministerial powers” and “public scrutiny of the appointments process” which would be “facilitated by publicising codes of practice, protocols, processes and appointment decisions”.

TASC hope to stimulate a wider public debate about the importance of improving the governance of public bodies with this latest report. “We would urge the Government to give serious consideration to these options, including the creation of a fully independent public appointments system”, Dr O’Connor said.

TASC Public Appointments