Belfast Telegraph

John Simpson: Critical recommendations to improve public services


Inquiry lead: Sir Patrick Coghlin
Inquiry lead: Sir Patrick Coghlin
John Simpson

By John Simpson

The report of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry is now nearing completion. The precise conclusions are closely anticipated, particularly about the performance of ministers and their special advisers (Spads).

The inquiry has more far-reaching consequences than the direct fate of the group of ministers, Spads and civil servants who have given evidence to the inquiry team led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin.

Behind the media headlines, there needs to be careful consideration of the critical comments which may point to a complex network of operational and policy deficiencies that, in total, call for an examination of a systemic organisational weakness in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS).

The evidence put to the RHI inquiry offers a more diverse agenda than the merits and demerits of a seriously flawed project. The agenda is likely to sub-divide into: ministerial competence, affecting three ministers; the remit and behaviour of non-civil service Spads; the role of the Permanent Secretaries, singly and collectively; and the managerial competence of middle grade managers in the NICS.

Arguably the most serious questions relate to the competence and training of the upcoming middle managers.

There are several sources pointing to the worrying conclusion that behaviours and analytical skills in the Civil Service are an immediate and serious issue to be tackled, possibly with external expertise.

There is a range of unfinished organisational and policy problems affecting several departments.

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These are more fundamental than can be blamed on an absence of Executive ministers, although that absence does not help.

For readers of Sam McBride's book Burned, using evidence relating to RHI, there is a litany of inadequate processes in decision-making that should not be dismissed as single, standalone mishaps.

The performance reflected across the pages gives a suspicion of systemic failure in aspects of selection, training, supervision and discipline.

These conclusions, unwelcome as they may be, are critical and urgent. Professionally competent public sector administration is an essential contribution to rebuilding a successful community.

Any complacency that we already have a world-class public sector administration must be challenged.

In fairness, this unwelcome conclusion will come as little surprise. The head of the Civil Service, David Sterling, was unambiguous in support for a range of measures to tackle competence in the management of public sector affairs.

His final evidence to the RHI inquiry, available on the inquiry website, sets out some of the parameters.

Further evidence of improvement needed in the delivery of government in Northern Ireland comes in a report from the Institute of Governance which asks what should be done to support government here.

It lists seven areas for practical improvement which might increase the capacity of the institutions to address longer-term challenges.

These include:

1. Developing institutions to support NI politicians and civil servants;

2. Reform of the operation and capabilities of the NICS;

3. Review of the wider governance landscape in NI;

4. Build on the recent widening of policy engagement across NI;

5. Encourage more cross-fertilisation across Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and NI

6. Increase the capacity for scrutiny by the NI Assembly; and

7. Ensure that the NI Secretary is a respected figure and improve 'NI literacy' in Whitehall and Westminster.

Each of these themes is further enlarged by the institute.

However, the reference to the operation and capabilities of the Civil Service merits special attention.

The report suggests that the NICS might be put on a statutory basis with a duty to advise ministers but also with freedom to publish reports under its own authority.

In a meaningful comment, the institute refers to the NICS as too eager to please ministers.

That thought opens a dangerous trap door.

Coming closer to home, the NI Audit Office has launched a special study of the 'capacity and capability' of the NICS.

Now, the question is, who will guarantee to implement the recommendations?

Belfast Telegraph