A former SNP minister has told Kate Forbes she has been “ill-advised” by her officials amid a row over a 20-week wait to fill top public sector jobs.
Maureen Watt told the finance secretary she could not “blame the process” for delays to key appointments, as she instead questioned the role of civil servants.
The exchanges followed stinging criticism of the Scottish Government over a “wholly inappropriate” bid to avoid scrutiny when handing out high-profile jobs on public bodies and boards.
Caroline Anderson, the commissioner for ethical standards in public life in Scotland, told MSPs in December she was concerned about a proposal from Holyrood ministers that they might draw up their own rules for making key appointments.
She feared it would allow such decisions to “fall under the radar” at a time when progress on achieving greater diversity among public sector bosses was “stalled or declining”.
‘Process needs to be more flexible’
However, Ms Forbes defended the idea as she appeared before the same Holyrood committee on Thursday, saying the government hoped to streamline the process and cut the 20-week time it can take for ministerial appointments.
She even raised the prospect of creating a “pool of pre-qualified people” that could be installed in senior positions more quickly.
The finance secretary said: “We’re saying in our submission that a 20-week wait is completely unacceptable, and therefore the process – and it’s the process that is dictating that 20-week wait – the process needs to be more flexible.”
Ms Watt, a former mental health minister, questioned the claim made by her SNP colleague, however.
‘You are being ill-advised’
The Aberdeen South and North Kincardine MSP said: “Cabinet secretary, I realise this is not top of your agenda, at all, but I think you are being ill-advised by your officials here.
“And I speak as a HR specialist, but also a former assessor of public appointments.
“Yes, the interview process at 20 weeks is ridiculous but, for example, ministers don’t need to get the whole application form and everything to go through and sign-off right at the beginning.
“Ministers, as you know, do not always meet the three or four recommended candidates before making a choice, unless it is a very senior and important appointment.
“Yes, it is difficult to get chairs of health boards and civil servants and whoever is on the panel together, and that could be streamlined, but I don’t think you can blame the process.
“I think just this whole thing is not given, by the civil service, the due recognition of its importance that is required.”
‘Completely and utterly unacceptable’
Labour MSP Neil Findlay had earlier questioned the reasons behind the 20-week wait.
“The process sounds not really any different from recruiting any employee, where you have a role, you advertise the job, you get applicants, you put together an interview panel, you interview them and then you appoint them,” he said.
“That sounds no different from any other vacancy. How it takes six months is just incredible, and completely and utterly unacceptable.”
He added: “If a business worked on a 20-week recruitment schedule it would close down, so for me it is completely unacceptable. There are no excuses for a 20-week period.”