Belfast Telegraph

Time Northern Ireland civil servants took a firm stand over Stormont


Civil servants have taken charge at Stormont
Civil servants have taken charge at Stormont
John Simpson

By John Simpson

Civil servants are now in charge, in the absence of ministers. They face dilemmas. Do they want to show how well they can make the economy and public services perform? Or do they have a duty to show the evidence of damage because there are no ministers?

It seems as if the Permanent Secretaries are biased in favour of minimising the evidence of the damage of inadequate (or no) decision making.

This is worrying when inadequate decision making is played down or ignored.

This distinction is neither academic nor avoidable. It becomes clearer when posed in terms of how the senior civil service responds and the way in which it relates to the wider community.

The purportedly neutral response by the head of the civil service cannot be easily accepted.

The question can be posed with slightly different emphasis. To whom is the head of the civil service accountable? Is his role to ensure efficient and competent delivery of public services in an accountable manner to the Secretary of State, who is standing back from a hands-on monitoring role?

Alternatively, is he fully answerable to public scrutiny through media and professional inquiries?

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The head of the civil service has recently authorised the publication of a review of public policies in Northern Ireland entitled 'Outcomes Delivery Plan 2018-19: mid-year report'. This 98-page document updates the structure of the Programme for Government initiated before the Assembly and Executive collapsed.

Inevitably, the delivery plan is less comprehensive than the Executive would have wished.

Since the delivery plan is reporting on outcomes which do not benefit from any supplementary policy decisions that, for now, are postponed because there is no Executive and no ministers, to a degree this delivery plan is less effective than it should be, compared to the plan as it would have evolved with ministers in post.

This faces the head of the civil service with a dilemma. Is his delivery plan a document which takes the credit for the uninterrupted delivery of public services and, implicitly, seeks public approval for the outcomes?

Alternatively, if the absence of ministers does mean that important decisions have not been made, should the head of the civil service acknowledge that this delay in decision making and subsequent action means that the outcome delivery is weaker than might have been expected - and in what ways?

If the head of the civil service wants to emphasise that his team have kept the Government systems going and are achieving improving outcomes, then the message is that the public sector is doing reasonably well.

If, alternatively, he wants to educate the wider community into the deficiencies that are accumulating as policy making developments are postponed, then the helpful analysis of the Outcomes Delivery Plan should point to the places and ways in which outcomes are lagging behind what should have been possible.

The plan should specifically say where delivery has been damaged.

In the event, the Outcomes Delivery Plan fudges this important distinction: it underplays the unresolved problems which are leaving public sector services below what they might be and in contrast overplays (with a degree of complacency) how services are currently performing.

The Outcomes Delivery Plan is a missed opportunity. The head of the civil service (and his teams) could have used the preparation of the document as an occasion to identify and prioritise the issues and services which the professional civil service recognises as critical to the agenda of any reformed ministerial Executive.

The Outcomes Delivery Plan is timid on the failure to authorise the building of the North-South Interconnector for electricity.

It is completely silent on corporation tax proposals: are they now dropped?

The ambition for increased social housing provision is modest.

The list of understated challenges is wide ranging.

As the civil servants avoid making policy recommendations, that should not mean that they avoid discussing the merits of different policy options.

Belfast Telegraph