Quangos: nice work if you can get it

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I READ with considerable interest Brian Wilson’s exposition of the Scottish Government’s political control of quangos and of the sort of Cosa Nostra links that exist between the many serial board members (Perspective, 14 February), because aspects of both accord totally with my experience.

In 2001, I was appointed a member of the revamped Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) board, which had been slimmed down and put on a more business-like footing following the Higher Still debacle of the previous year. However, from the start I was amazed at how many of my fellow board members were simultaneously on several other boards – board meetings had an air of one stop on the networking circuit of the quangocracy.

I puzzled how they could do justice to so many commitments and to their own often senior and highly paid jobs. Of course, the truth was many didn’t. They simply turned up with papers unread and did not bother themselves with understanding the intricacies of SQA’s operations. However, there were enough focused on the job in hand to offer SQA the governance it required.

In 2009, my term of office
came to an end and I had genuine hopes, even expectations, of being re-appointed. I felt very committed to SQA and to the development of Curriculum for Excellence. However, the whole process of board appointments was delayed until the new chairman, Graham Houston, was able to take up his post as it would be he who would have the ultimate say on appointments.

At the time, there was considerable controversy about Graham Houston’s appointment to SQA, because he was the head of the SNP council in Stirling and there were those who argued that anyone holding such an overtly political post should not head a quango.

As a result, one of his first acts was to summon a meeting of board members – no officers were present – and to ask us for our views on whether we thought there was any conflict of interest.

Two of us had the audacity to say we thought there was. However, my dissenting colleague was in the middle of his terms of office, I was not. Not surprisingly, I was not reappointed.

The remit of my position was completely re-written so that I no longer qualified for it. Whereas I had represented the users of SQA’s qualifications, the replacement post was for a person who had experience of change-management in business. The post went to Willie Gallagher of the failed Edinburgh tram company.

I am interested to see that Graham Houston has now added membership of Scottish Police Authority board to his portfolio. It’s nice work if you can get it.

And folk wonder why there isn’t a greater spread of ordinary people on boards, not to mention integrity.

JUDITH GILLESPIE

Findhorn Place

Edinburgh

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