The head of the General Social Care Council and a Department of Health director general are among those believed to have applied to become chief executive of the Care Quality Commission.

However, HSJ also understands that at least three senior NHS figures who were targeted by headhunters declined to apply for the role. One described it as a “poisoned chalice”.

Current chief executive Cynthia Bower announced her resignation in February on the publication of the DH’s performance and capability review, which followed months of criticism of the regulator and its leadership. She will leave in the autumn.

Like Ms Bower, General Social Care Council chief Penny Thompson and DH director general of social care David Behan began their careers as social workers.

Ms Thompson has health service experience as interim chief executive of NHS Haringey in the wake of the “Baby P” scandal in 2008. She joined the General Social Care Council in February 2010, less than six months before its abolition was announced following the government’s review of arm’s length bodies.

Mr Behan headed up one of the CQC’s predecessor organisations, the Commission for Social Care Inspection, before joining the DH in 2006.

Applications for the role closed last week. HSJ understands headhunters Hays are drawing up an initial shortlist of six candidates.

The advert for the role, likely to attract a salary in excess of £200,000, sought applications from “experienced” chief executives with “excellent understanding” of public and private operating models.

HSJ understands former Heart of England Foundation Trust chief executive Mark Goldman, Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence chief executive Harry Cayton and national director for quality during the transition Ian Cumming were all approached by headhunters but decided not to apply. Peter Homa, chief executive of Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, is also understood to have been approached.

Sir Neil McKay, chief executive of the Midlands and East strategic health authority cluster, did not apply.

HSJ has not been able to determine whether Mr Homa, a former chief executive of the Commission for Health Improvement and, briefly, the Healthcare Commission, has applied.

Shortlisted applicants for the post will be assessed on 23 May. It is anticipated four candidates will go through to the panel interview stage on 29 May to be decided by the board.

Once the new chief executive is in post the regulator will move to a unitary board structure. This means the health secretary will be able to appoint executives to be voting members of the board to sit alongside the commissioners. The maximum size of the board will increase from 10 to 12.