Toby Young, tweets and the challenge of hiring the right people

By early Tuesday morning, the name ‘Toby Young’ had been trending on Twitter with nearly 50,000 tweets. The outraged Twitterati were celebrating that their pressure on the government had resulted in Young falling on his sword. And this, despite earlier support from the PM and senior government ministers, like the Johnson brothers.

Just days earlier, Young, an abrasive ‘shock-jock’ of a journalist turned founder of schools, had been appointed to the UK government’s Office for Students (OfS).

His downfall, it seems, stems from a combination of his long-form articles on eugenics, among other topics, and his track-record of obscene tweets which are covered in detail elsewhere.

And aside from the time it took for Young to go (many were presuming it would be a firing by the government, when they realized about the man’s previous form), the whole sorry affair prompts questions about how people are appointed to quangos. What is the process, who administers it, and who made the final decision that Young was the preferred candidate?  Or was this a case of ‘jobs for the boys’ – or as the phrase went on the radio on Tuesday morning, the ‘chumocracy’. Or worse still – was there no process, was it finessed, or was it ignored?

When my son joined the forces, his background check included my background and even my parents’.  When I appointed someone to my team in a large company, for some sensitive roles in security, with the candidate’s permission, we undertook deep due diligence into the person’s professional and personal background in order to ensure they were what they said they were on their CV. It’s also common for references to be taken from a candidate’s previous boss AND the colleagues on the same level with whom they worked.

The key challenge for the government now is to share the process whereby Young and the others appointed to the regulator are selected, applications processed, decisions made and background checks undertaken.  It’s not clear to me how this works, but as the committee is funded by the taxpayer, it should be made clear.  And specifically, was this process properly applied to Toby Young, or was there a nod and a wink between old mates?

It’s disappointing that the government cannot immediately spring to the defence of the human resources processes in this case, but it’s not surprising. Perhaps if they had done their homework, they would have been ahead of the curve and may not have been in the position of having to reactively deal with this fiasco.

Lessons learned?  Apply a clear, transparent and robust process for the appointment of members of regulators and watchdogs that is at least as tough as the processes used for the appointment of civil servants and managers in many businesses.

Classic final lesson? An issue ignored (or not searched for) is a crisis ensured.

STOP PRESS: Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, said on BBC Radio Four’s PM programme later on Tuesday that the process was followed, interviews conducted by an independent panel, but that the candidate’s web and social media profile wasn’t ‘googled’ and ‘common sense plus’ wasn’t applied in terms of flagging his social media activities to a minister.

 

The civil service has good HR processes; the government doesn’t. Discuss.

Within the course of a week, two government ministers resigned under pressure over impropriety and governance issues.

Last week, Theresa May’s Defence Secretary resigned under a cloud of allegations about impropriety and because he couldn’t guarantee there was no prospect of further issues emerging.

So, Gavin Williamson, erstwhile Chief Whip and holder of all the dirt on the disgraced Defence Secretary, shimmies into the top position of State. He goes from keeping a list of MP’s weaknesses and proclivities to a position where he is making life and death decisions on a daily basis.  I’m not even sure he was in the cadet force at school or the sea scouts on a Thursday evening (what HR people would call ‘domain competence’).

And today, Priti Patel, International Development Secretary, now joins the growing ranks of former government ministers who have more time to spend with their families. She was, according to one commentator this morning, naïve in her conduct, but more importantly, he said, these ministers don’t have a proper induction when they move into what are big jobs, with big budgets and sensitive issues to handle. Good point.

But how is that OK? Imagine appointing a butcher as a consultant thoracic surgeon. 

In the corporate world, appointing a completely unsuitable candidate to a top job in any company is rare.  This is because ‘top talent’ and likely successors are systematically coached, trained and assessed throughout their career, so stepping into a leading position is a logical, incremental move.  Equally, head-hunters are scrupulous in assessing outside candidates and take meaningful references.  So, by comparison, becoming a minister from the back-benches must be a shock, even if ambitious politicians (tautology) relish the prospect.

Aside from the political and Brexit leanings of a ministerial candidate (today probably accounting to 75% of the available assessment points), why aren’t a ministerial candidate’s competence and leadership capacity neutrally assessed – and compared with other likely appointees?  Where’s their HR file?

It seems that the backbone of running the country is undertaken by professional civil servants for whom decent HR systems and processes exist.  Senior civil servants know about governance, protocol and communications.  And it’s a good job, because ministers are parachuted in for a term of office, try to radically change stuff and in the end learn the art of the possible.

What broke down here with Priti Patel’s ‘working holiday’ was that the visit and itinerary were not led by her civil servants. They probably didn’t know she was going to extend the concept of a ‘holiday’, to include 12 meetings in one week, including one with the leader of another country.

But do we know whether her induction into her role included an explanation of the obligations to properly plan, inform, prepare, record and follow-up foreign visits – and the reasons for these seemingly bureaucratic steps? Did she know that venues for official meetings would be ‘swept’ for bugs in case foreign actors wanted to compromise politicians, blackmail them and use them for their own purposes?

We don’t know what she knew.

But her department’s decision to hang her out to dry by denying knowledge of meetings, or confirming that they didn’t involve department staff, speaks volumes.  Her civil servants had had enough.

This systemic failure can be addressed with the introduction of transparent systems and processes for the induction of new ministers.  Never mind competence and leadership assessments for now. That can come later.  But the basics MUST be adopted for the sake of new ministers and for the sake of the reputation of their department and of the government.

And once they’ve been inducted – they need to sign off that they understand their obligations, just like any manager in an international company has to do when they complete compliance training. This means any transgression is a ‘commission’, rather than an ‘omission’ and therefore a sackable offence.

Seems fair.