THE BLOG

Contacts: The Royal Route to the Top

07/04/2014 15:19 BST | Updated 07/06/2014 10:59 BST

Many of you will have seen the photo of the new French Cabinet (http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2014/04/04/french-power-couple-reunites-at-cabinet-table). This shows all the President's men and women with the new Prime Minister, Manuel Valls to his immediate right, and the new Environment Minister to the right of that. She just happens to be Ségolène Royal, President Hollande's ex-partner and mother of his four children. All three are dressed in light and dark shades of blue and form the visual centrepiece to the photograph. Is this joining of closely connected people the way most appointments work? How effective is this for society and what are the implications for Business and education?

Is this the way that most appointments work? Of course, most people would say that appointments procedures follow due process but according to Ivan Misner, US networking expert, most jobs comes from direct referral, either from a recruiter, or a personal connection. In the UK, a survey by Labour Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn on Social Mobility showed that 65 per cent were of the view that fundamentally "who you know matters more than what you know" in Britain today.

The implications of this are frightening both for people seeking to advance their careers and also for organisations seeking to enhance their talent base. It is also damning in terms of widening diversity since networks tend to share demographic profiles, whether in terms of social class, gender or race. Allowing systems to flourish based on the 'old boys network' sends portentous messages concerning the secondary importance of talent compared to ability and allows existing power structures to prevail. As Maria Miller, Minister for Women said last week, 'Women don't need special treatment. They just need a modernised workplace that gives them a level playing field and a cultural shift that promotes on merit'.

If nepotism and contacts determine who gets a job, then equality of opportunity and relevant expertise is severely threatened. Is access to contacts one reason why parents will shell out expensive fees for independent schools? After all, Cameron's steadfast use of ex-Etonians in his Cabinet and advisory body bear testament to the power of the old school tie.

Of course, a cynic might say that it has been ever thus and only cause for comment today since the civilised west went through a period of claiming transparency and equity in recruitment procedures. So, famous examples from the past include John F. Kennedy's appointment of his brother Robert as Attorney General and more recent times have seen the Bush and Clinton political dynasties. There are even extraordinary and fanciful claims that Merkel is related to Hitler (bolstered it has to be said by an uncanny resemblance between them) and, closer to home, there are concerns at the possible involvement of the Royal family in the determination of UK policy.

Some people might have acute concerns with cronyism or nepotism in public life since the public good provided may be diminished by failure to appoint the best person for the job. Such reasoning underlies the suspension in February this year of the CEO of Devon Healthcare pending investigations into allegations of favouritism in recruiting her daughter's boyfriend to a job at the hospital. Whistleblowers claimed to have been victimised as a result of voicing their concerns.

So, the meteoric promotion of Ségolène Royal is bound to raise eyebrows, particularly since her elevation to power is in the public sector, supported by public funds. Her looks are astonishlingly good (making her one of the few women to look better at 60 than in her thirties, with the odd rumour on the internet of radical plastic surgery) and quite how French opinion will be reflected in opinion polls remains to be seen. Surveys will soon give a handle on whether the public in the west is becoming more or less accepting of cronyism and nepotism and we will watch this space with interest.

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