Of course senior leaders of bodies like PHE are involved with politics
Word that Dido Harding — she of the Test and Trace fiasco — has applied to be the next Chief Executive of NHS England was controversial even before her suggestion yesterday that the Health Service be weaned off its reliance on foreign staff.
It isn’t obvious why this should be a priority. There may be a principled case for not poaching skilled professionals from other countries that also need them, but in raw political terms there is no immigration more popular than Health Service immigration.
Others have criticised the very idea of candidates for such a role effectively ‘campaigning’ and making policy offers. Professor Tim Bale, of Queen Mary University, sums up the sentiment:
But beyond the specific merits of the proposal or the candidate, however, any such worry is misplaced. In fact, having the political dimension of senior public sector posts acknowledged is a healthy democratic development.
The Chief Executive of NHS England is responsible for policy decisions which affect millions of patients and medical staff. It is right that politicians, and the public, have an opportunity to get some idea about how they will make them.
Peter Mair, in his excellent Ruling the Void, sets how modern liberalism often tends to restrict the scope of democracy via, among other things, framing debate in terms of qualification.
‘Competence’ and ‘experience’ are not neutral concepts. They imply a shared understanding of the end of any given role, with only the question of means up for debate. This is fair enough for junior roles or positions in the private sector, where goals are usually defined by the specific commercial objectives of the individual or institution doing the hiring.
But a state — at least, a democratic state — doesn’t function that way. Public sector leadership is not just about who is best placed to do an agreed thing in an agreed way. A nation which undergoes regular changes in political leadership must ensure the permanent state tracks such changes.
The Conservatives have historically been bad at this, with the consequence that many public bodies and quangos remain led by New Labour appointees, still working towards Blair-era ideals. That they conceive of their roles as neutral does not make them so.
Where Tory policymaking has been most effective, it has often been partnered with some progress in driving change in this sphere. One thinks of the appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw to head Ofsted during the heyday of Michael Gove’s school reform programme. Today, with culture and media high on the agenda, Tim Davie has made at least some efforts to drive change at the BBC.
In truth, they could go a lot further. Why not legislate so that the head of every quango must be reappointed (or not) by a new government? The operation of the state, and indeed the quasi-state, is seldom apolitical, and both parties when in office should have the right to ensure it is on the same page as them.