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Northern Ireland Civil Service chief Jayne Brady: The next decade will be unlike everything before

Writing in the Ulster Business Top 100 Northern Ireland Companies 2022, Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, says the next decade will “be unlike everything before” and utilising science and technology will be key to develop our economy


Jayne Brady

Jayne Brady

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Jayne Brady

Like business and industry, the Northern Ireland Civil Service is emerging from the past two years with newly honed agility and post-pandemic skills.

We have embraced new ways of working, taking a radical approach where necessary. We have learned much and we are doing things better than before in order to navigate emerging challenges.

As business leaders, the impacts resulting from the war in Ukraine will be top of your mind; energy price hikes and the cost of living crisis have compounded residual pressures from the pandemic leaving little room for a hiatus. For us in Northern Ireland, the lack of a functioning Executive also brings its own unique challenge, and while challenges are inevitable, how we respond and transform will always be conscious decisions.

In the last 27 years of my career, 25 have been in the private sector, either developing high- tech solutions or financing them. A common thread within all of these roles was capitalising on moments of disruption as catalysts for change. It was in this context that I applied for the role as chief policy advisor to the Executive and head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

The best time to grow differentially is when aggregate growth is low. Like many organisations, the Civil Service’s response to the pandemic clearly demonstrated our ability to deliver proactively and at pace. As the post-Covid world continues to evolve, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a new direction for our society and economy.

We have long-standing systemic challenges in terms of productivity, health inequalities and achieving net zero carbon emissions. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have exacerbated these issues, particularly for women, people with disabilities and those with low incomes. We must take pre-emptive action now to avoid long-term scarring that will be multi-generational.

As a society we are resilient, practical and determined; we can rise to this challenge, with the public sector as a pivotal and proactive force, shaping and driving the change so that this time of immense transformation delivers for all. Within the Civil Service, we are preparing to lead the public sector in this way.

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There is a well-established school of thought that government and the public sector should be restricted to intervening only to regulate or correct market failures. Recognising that policy is for ministers to decide, not civil servants, there is also strong, reliable evidence that the public sector works best when it is proactive, thinking and behaving as an entrepreneur and investing to secure outcomes.

The importance of science and technology as an enabler of a proactive public service cannot be underestimated. Through collaboration and co-design with delivery partners, we will utilise innovation, science and technology to deliver solutions, ensuring our response is effective. It is critical that these are at the heart of policy making and I’m delighted that a recruitment competition to appoint an NICS chief technology and scientific officer is at an advanced stage

The economic impacts of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have resulted in marginalised and disadvantaged groups being hardest hit. We know that the economic recovery model must take account of that as we keep our policy priorities under close review, noting the need to reach beyond traditional GDP growth. Economic recovery not only has a rate, it also has a direction and we have an opportunity to embed structural changes to develop a more sustainable, dynamic and inclusive region.

Since the Assembly election, I have been engaging with the four political parties who are entitled to form the new Executive to discuss the priorities they will pursue when they return. While we cannot do everything, the Northern Ireland Civil Service will bring our commitment and expertise to several key areas of focus.

These will be our missions: cross-cutting, innovative and focussed programmes of work to tackle some of the most challenging issues we face, increased employability and productivity, green growth, and improving life opportunities. Preparations have begun in these areas as we await the formation of a new Executive, laying the groundwork where we can, for ministers to decide on the way forward.

Completing our missions will require collaboration and we are committed to enhanced engagement with delivery partners including business and industry. The businesses featured in this publication represent firms at the cutting-edge of their respective industries. In many areas, they are setting an example from which other organisations, including the Civil Service, can learn. This will help us add value and enhance delivery.

It has been a fast-paced 10 months since I took up the role of head of the Civil Service. I was, and remain, determined to bring energies and new ideas to the role, building upon our strengths in order to deliver better public services. Since my first day I have been impressed by the expertise across all departments. Together, we have overcome challenges and seized opportunities and we must continue our proactive and agile response.

In order to support the organisation so that we can lead the public sector during this time of transformative change, a Civil Service Renewal Programme is underway. This will improve our effectiveness in serving the Executive and the citizens of Northern Ireland. I believe that we should reflect the society we serve. That means a modern, innovative and diverse civil service, equipped to meet the challenges of the future.

The next decade will be unlike everything before. In the face of major societal, economic and environmental challenges, we have the opportunity to ensure that this decade is remembered, first and foremost, for delivery. Challenges will continue to come our way, but I am optimistic that we in the Northern Ireland Civil Service can deliver, because I am very proud of what we have already achieved. 

Jayne Brady is head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service