The Trouble with Boards at the Ministry of Magic

Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, has completed his investigation into the recent appointments to the Board of the Office for Students and published his report.

From the “Number 10 Googlers,”  that NUS affiliation — an interest in student union representation was seen as undesirable, to “undermining the policy goals” and what the SpAds supported, the whole report is worth a read.

Perception of the process

The concern that the Commissioner raises, over the harm  done to the public’s perception of the public appointments process means more needs done to fix these problems, before and after appointments.

This process reinforces what people think already. Jobs for the [white Oxford] boys, and yes-men.  And so what, why should I get involved anyway, and what can we hope to change?

Possibilities for improvement

What should the Department for Education (DfE) now offer and what should be required after the appointments process, for the OfS and other bodies, boards and groups et al?

  • Every board at the Department for Education, its name, aim, and members — internal and external — should be published.
  • Every board at the Department for Education should be required to publish its Terms of Appointment, and Terms of Reference.
  • Every board at the Department for Education should be required to publish agendas before meetings and meaningful meeting minutes promptly.

Why? Because there’s all sorts of boards around and their transparency is frankly non-existent. I know because I sit on one. Foolishly I did not make it a requirement to publish minutes before I agreed to join. But in a year it has only met twice, so you’ve not missed much. Who else sits where, on what policy, and why?

In another I used to sit on I got increasingly frustrated that the minutes were not reflective of the substance of discussion. This does the public a disservice twice over. The purpose of the boards look insipid and the evidence for what challenge they are intended to offer,  their very reason for being, is washed away. Show the public what’s hard, that there’s debate, that risks are analysed and balanced, and then decisions taken. Be open to scrutiny.

The public has a right to know

When scrutiny really matters, it is wrong — just as the Commissioner report reads — for any Department or body to try to hide the truth.

The purpose of transparency must be to hold to account and ensure checks-and-balances are upheld in a democratic system.

The DfE withdrew from a legal hearing scheduled at the First Tier Information Rights Tribunal last year a couple of weeks beforehand, and finally accepted an ICO decision notice in my favour. I had gone through a year of the Freedom-of-Information appeal process to get hold of the meeting minutes of the Department for Education Star Chamber Scrutiny Board, from November 2015.

It was the meeting in which I had been told members approved the collection of nationality and country of birth in the school census.

“The Star Chamber Scrutiny Board”.  Not out of Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic but appointed by the DfE.

It’s a board that mentions actively seeking members of certain teaching unions but omits others. It publishes no meeting minutes. Its terms of reference are 38 words long, and it was not told the whole truth before one of the most important and widely criticised decisions it ever made affecting the lives of millions of children across England and harm and division in the classroom.

Its annual report doesn’t mention the controversy at all.

After sixteen months, the DfE finally admitted it had kept the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board in the dark on at least one of the purposes of expanding the school census. And on its pre-existing active, related data policy passing pupil data over to the Home Office.

The minutes revealed the Board did not know anything about the data sharing agreement already in place between the DfE and Home Office or that “(once collected) nationality data” [para 15.2.6] was intended to share with the Border Force Casework Removals Team.

Truth that the DfE was forced to reveal, and only came out two years after the meeting, and a full year after the change in law.

If the truth, transparency, diversity of political opinion on boards are allowed to die so does democracy

I spoke to Board members in 2016. They were shocked to find out what the MOU purposes were for the new data,  and that regular data transfers had already begun without their knowledge, when they were asked to sign off the nationality data collection.

Their lack of concerns raised was given in written evidence to the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that it had been properly reviewed.

How trustworthy is anything that the Star Chamber now “approves” and our law making process to expand school data? How trustworthy is the Statutory Instrument scrutiny process?

“there was no need for DfE to discuss with SCSB the sharing of data with Home Office as: a.) none of the data being considered by the SCSB as part of the proposal supporting this SI has been, or will be, shared with any third-party (including other government departments);

[omits it “was planned to be”]

and b.) even if the data was to be shared externally, those decisions are outside the SCSB terms of reference.”

Outside the terms of reference that are 38 words long and should scrutinise but not too closely or reject on the basis of what exactly?

Not only is the public not being told the full truth about how these boards are created, and what their purpose is, it seems board members are not always told the full truth they deserve either.

Who is invited to the meeting, and who is left out? What reports are generated with what recommendations? What facts or opinion cannot be listened to, scrutinised and countered, that could be so damaging as to not even allow people to bring the truth to the table?

If the meeting minutes would be so controversial and damaging to making public policy by publishing them, then who the heck are these unelected people making such significant decisions and how? Are they qualified, are they independent, and are they accountable?

If alternately, what should be ‘independent’ boards, or panels, or meetings set up to offer scrutiny and challenge, are in fact being manipulated to manoeuvre policy and ready-made political opinions of the day,  it is a disaster for public engagement and democracy.

It should end with this ex- OfS hiring process at DfE, today.

The appointments process and the ongoing work by boards must have full transparency, if they are ever to be seen as trustworthy.

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