Belfast Telegraph

John Simpson: Permanent secretaries should be clearly spelling out main issues


Department of Communities chief Tracey Meharg
Department of Communities chief Tracey Meharg
John Simpson

By John Simpson

In the absence of an Executive, the day-to-day functioning of most public services which should fall within the competence of local ministers, rests heavily on the discretion of the top civil servants, usually holding appointments as permanent secretaries or exceptionally in other senior appointments (such as the Comptroller and Auditor General).

When local ministers were in place, the formal remit of permanent secretaries was to act under the supervision of the minister and assemble professional advice when policy decisions were needed. Last year, in the absence of ministers, the Secretary of State put in place arrangements to clarify and slightly widen the delegated authority of permanent secretaries with a reservation that significant new policy measures should be reserved for possible action by the Secretary of State.

For over a year, permanent secretaries have facilitated continuing decision-making where they have tried to ensure that their actions were essentially non-controversial. To the credit of these senior officials, there have been few contested decisions. However, there must also be a concern that other desirable decisions that might have proved controversial have been quietly parked, awaiting the return of acceptable political processes.

The permanent secretaries, normally, would have a low public profile although, in the local NI community, they are well known to senior personnel in business, education, health and community services. Unfortunately, without local ministers, the recurring commentary has tended to repeat one theme: services are constrained because of limited budgets.

In today's political environment there is insufficient funding to allow public services to be maintained at acceptable levels: departmental budgets are apparently not large enough. That is an inadequate passive response. The lack of serious criticism gives the impression that, even with tight funding, services are being maintained. No problem: without ministers the system just keeps going!

In recent months, most permanent secretaries have retained a low public profile. In terms of public awareness, the highest profiles are held by David Sterling, head of the Civil Service, and Richard Pengelly, heading up the Department of Health and Social Services. Three senior women are also playing big roles: Sue Gray heads the Department of Finance, Tracey Meharg leads the Department for Communities and Katrina Godfrey is in charge of the Department for Infrastructure. Also in this distinguished group, Derek Baker is in charge of the Department of Education, Peter May leads the Department of Justice, Denis McMahon heads the Department for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs whilst Noel Lavery holds the top post in the Department for the Economy.

Given the changed role of the permanent secretaries, each of them might play a more public role in explanation, defence and motivation of the services in their remit. Is it a fair criticism to say that they have underplayed their changed roles too modestly? If so, this is an unhelpful attitude which should be avoided.

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David Sterling, head of the Civil Service
David Sterling, head of the Civil Service

If the permanent secretaries are a continuing source of leadership on public services then, thrust into a higher profile, they should be expected to help to generate a better informed debate about what should happen next in their remit. They have a useful opportunity to prepare the ground for policy developments, sometimes showing ideas that generate improved services, greater efficiency and better ways of managing limited budgets. While there are no local ministers, this is an opportunity to take debate about public services to a larger audience.

Sadly, with limited exceptions, this role of advancing public understanding and debate has been avoided. The civil service has a well-informed professional leadership role. Without being party politically partisan, they have a responsibility to inform the wider community. If the senior civil servants, with their expertise, only talk to other civil servants, the whole community is the poorer.

From permanent secretaries, can we ask for less secrecy, reticence and confidentiality and more frank commentary outlining well-shaped ideas?

Belfast Telegraph