It might seem a bit rich to ask anyone who went through the latest NHS reorganisation to spare a thought for the Appointments Commission, but here goes.

In the last few months the commission has had to apologise twice to candidates for mistakes in its processes and been found in breach of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments' code of openness and transparency.

Chief executive Roger Moore retired in December this year and controversial chair Sir William Wells' term of office expires in March 2007.

And the commission has had its work cut out. Since last May it has appointed new boards for every primary care trust in England except London - more than 600 appointments.

When the process is complete for London in March, its London office will close with the loss of all 13 jobs currently based there. Three have already found alternative employment but 10 have not.

Now a steady drip of complaints about the appointments process (news, page 8, 14 September and page 6, 23 November 2006) is gathering pace. HSJreported on an NHS Alliance survey of its 350-strong non-executive directors network (news, page 9, 11 January). It found that a significant number of NEDs, many of them from highly successful PCTs, feel 'bruised, hurt and devalued' by the NHS. Nine out of 10 respondents were not reappointed, so this could be a case of sour grapes, but the report noted that the hurt was caused as much by the process as by the failure to secure a post.

National service, local community

So the arrival of a new chair in the shape of Anne Watts could be just the tonic the organisation needs. She started as a non-executive director this month and takes over the chair in April.

Her appointment may mark a change in direction. Ms Watts comes from big business, working in equal opportunities in big banks, latterly as director of equal opportunities for HSBC.

'HSBC's strapline is ì´¨e world's local bankî ¡nd I think that's something that applies to the health service too,' she says. 'The NHS is trying to provide a national service to a local community.'

She also has a long track record in public-private partnerships having been seconded to Business in the Community for two years from 2002-04, as well as a string of public appointments. She is, among many other things, a member of the steering group of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, and chair of the independent panel on race equality for the NHS, originally acting as a 'critical friend' to former NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp.

As a newcomer to the commission, she is enthusiastic. 'They have had an enormous workload this year,' she says. 'They have developed some really first class work to support the whole system, from processes likely to produce the kinds of candidates required through to supporting them as they take on new roles.'

Her remit is to broaden the commission's candidate pool. The general feeling is that, particularly in the recent round of appointments, there has been too much emphasis on business and finance skills, with the result that the NED profile is largely white and male.

Broadest of talents

The Appointments Commission's acting chief executive, Janice Scanlon, admits to problems attracting candidates in some areas. Roughly 100 NED posts are unfilled, although she points out that some of these will remain vacant.

'PCTs can have up to seven NEDs,' she says. 'Some will not have that many. But there are areas where we are readvertising and trying to find new candidates because we have struggled to find the right people.'

Ms Watts says: 'The NHS needs to find people with the broadest set of talents. We have to embrace a wide group and draw people in.'

It is, she says, something of a catch-22 situation. A recent Equal Opportunities Commission report highlighted the lack of women in general, and ethnic minority women in particular, in senior posts. Yet the new boards need people with senior level experience.

'It is difficult,' she admits. 'But not impossible.'

The other contentious issue facing the Appointments Commission is the extent to which it can expand its customer base. Last October it dropped the old 'NHS' prefix as it moved from being a special health authority to a non-departmental statutory body.

Ms Watts acknowledges the anxiety bubbling under the surface. 'I know that there is concern about this but I want to be clear. The NHS is our gold card customer and that is not going to change.'