Government is taking longer than it should to appoint non-executive directors (NED) to public positions, and these delays can leave gaps on boards, creating risks to governance, and reducing the number of high-quality candidates, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO’s Non-executive appointments report details how interviewees told the independent public spending watchdog that both ministerial churn and cumbersome processes can delay appointments, lead to potential appointees dropping out of the process or being deterred from applying, and that it compared unfavourably to private sector appointments.

The extent of the delays in 2023-24 is unclear as Cabinet Office does not yet hold the relevant data.1 This includes the length of time it takes to receive approvals from the Prime Minister’s office for appointments that Number 10 is involved in. In 2022-23, there was on average 203 days between a recruitment campaign closing, and a public appointment being announced. The Governance Code for Public Appointments says this should be no more than 90 days.

However, in April 2023 the Cabinet Office launched a new application tracking system to centralise applications, gather real-time data, and make it easier for applicants to find new opportunities. The Cabinet Office told the NAO that departments are using the new portal for all regulated public appointments and some unregulated appointments. However, the system cannot yet provide the insights needed because not all government departments are adding accurate data to the system or using the system during recruitment campaigns.

Interviewees also expressed concern to the NAO that applicants withdrawing from the process deprive the government of a diverse range of high-quality NEDs. However, the NAO’s analysis of available data shows that the diversity of new appointees has improved in recent years. Government set an ambition of 50% of all public appointees to be female, and 14% of yearly appointments to be from ethnic minority backgrounds by 2022. Cabinet Office told the NAO it has not yet set aspirations beyond 2022.

The government has focused on broadening the applicant pool for NED posts, including developing talent pipelines and undertaking outreach events around the UK designed to increase applications. Other measures include using media and social media to publicise opportunities across government.2

Government does not know how many NEDs in total are serving on all government boards, including arm’s-length bodies and government companies. Cabinet Office and the Commissioner for Public Appointments collect data on regulated public appointments but the available data does not differentiate between types of public appointments, so it does not show how many appointments are for non-executive directors.3

Appointments that are considered to be of interest to the Prime Minister require consultation with or sometimes agreement from the Prime Minister’s office, on his behalf. However, the Prime Minister’s interest in certain appointments is not routinely made public.

The NAO’s report recommends that the Cabinet Office works with departments and their arm’s-length bodies to improve the consistency of approach to appointments across government, through support, guidance and sharing of good practice. 

It also recommends Cabinet Office works with departmental appointments teams to understand delays and use this data to streamline the process and improve how organisations identify the skills and diversity they need for a particular role.

“Non-executive directors make an important contribution to the running of government, providing an independent perspective, expertise, and challenge where needed. Government must do more to address delays in the appointment and reappointment process. Failure to do so poses risks to the quality and diversity of boards as well as good governance.

“Cabinet Office's new system is a positive step towards identifying where delays are occurring in the system, addressing long-standing issues, and enabling better decision-making.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Non-executive appointments

Notes for editors

  1. The NAO and Parliament have previously noted that the appointments process is lengthy and burdensome sometimes resulting in gaps on boards and undermining the governance of arm’s-length bodies.
  2. In 2022-23, 53.7% of new appointees were female 14.6% were from an ethnic minority background. In June 2019 the Government launched a Public Appointments Diversity Action Plan to focus on broadening access and improving the diversity and quality of appointees. Government set aspirations for improving the diversity of appointees, stating its ambition for 50% of all public appointees to be female, and 14% of yearly appointments to be from ethnic minority backgrounds by 2022. Cabinet Office reported that in 2021-22 47% of all serving public appointees were female and 12% of all appointments and reappointments went to people who were from an ethnic minority background.
  3. Departments and their ministers are primarily responsible for appointing their own non-executives. Cabinet Office has oversight of the public appointments process and provides support and guidance to departments. It maintains the Governance Code, which sets out the process of making a regulated public appointment and collects data on the appointments process across government. In some cases, the Prime Minister’s office are involved in the appointments process, for example where the Prime Minister is responsible for making the appointment. It will also be involved in specific appointments that are of interest to the Prime Minister.

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