The decision to hold an “open” competition for Governor of the Bank of England at first sight is a wise and modern move. No more magic circle, no more mysterious process and seceret short list. Anyone can apply, and the press can go to town on the merits and more likely the shortcomings of the various candidates as they leak out.
I normally favour open and transparent approaches to problems. As a democrat I normally favour the intense light of scrutiny. However, when making important appointments in the private sector in past jobs I have been grateful not to have to do it in the way the government is now searching for a new Governor. It often does make sense, when seeking a senior and able person, to use specialists to contact suitable people privately, and to conduct first round interviews in secret. If you want someone good they are very likely to hold a current role that is important to them. They will not automatically reach for an application form for your job, especially if their application becomes public.
The problem with the Bank job has been compounded by the clear “hands off” message in the advert to anyone other than a member of the charmed inner circle, and by the rough handling so far of anyone who hinted at their interest in the role in the press. Of course the winner has to expect an avalanche of appraisal, criticism and probing once appointed. Anyone who does not expect that and is not ready for it should not be applying. Serious candidates will naturally be reluctant to go through that before winning, if it damages their current role and reputation.
The government would be wise to choose their Governor in a different way. The country needs a unique individual. The person has to be able to give fearless and good advice in private to the government, and to be loyal to them, whoever is in office, in public. The winner has to use the independent powers that he or she does hold to good effect, in a way which helps government policy achieve legitimate goals of low inflation and faster growth. The person would be wise to know this is a very powerful position, and even wiser to understand that the holder of the office cannot hope to wield that power against the wishes of the elected government and Parliament for any length of time.
There have been major upheavals in the role and responsibility of the Bank on each change of government in 1997 and 2010. There has been constant public and Parliamentary dissatisfaction with the way monetary policy has been conducted and the way banks have been regulated since 2007, and for some of us from much longer ago than that. A new Governor needs supreme powers to heal the settlement, make the new system work, give due space to the Chancellor to shape economic policy, whilst keeping good hold of banks and money.
Unfortunately these superhumans have not so far been in charge of the Bank, and are unlikely to emerge from the current very flawed process. Maybe the government has got the job brief wrong, as well as choosing a bad way of finding the person. Maybe the job is too big. Maybe seeking both a great independent judge of the economy and a good courtier is expecting too much in the same person. This is a situation where a good search executive could help, and when greater clarity over how much to expect from the role would also be reassuring.