The RHI inquiry has made a total of 44 recommendations which it said flowed from the “systemic shortcomings” identified in its findings.
The author of the report said the recommendations seek to address wider issues of “poor governance and practice” which go beyond the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
The report said it hoped the inquiry’s work will help the establishment of more “transparent and effective” government in Northern Ireland.
Its recommendations include:
– A new policy at its earliest stage should be subject to a rigorous process to determine whether the Northern Ireland devolved administration has – or is prepared to assign – the necessary skills and resources to deliver the policy safely and competently.
– Action is needed to raise and sustain the quality of advice to ministers and the clarity with which it is expressed.
– Under existing arrangements, Northern Ireland ministers should be responsible for their special advisers. There should be clarity with regard to the ministers’ and the special advisers’ respective roles in terms of reading, advising and commenting upon submissions, technical reports and other documentation advanced as a basis for ministerial decisions.
– A fundamental shift is needed in the approach used within the Northern Ireland Civil Service with regard to recruitment and selection for government jobs.
– Commercial and business awareness amongst policy officials, particularly those working in roles related to the economy of Northern Ireland, must be improved.
– The Northern Ireland Civil Service should consider what changes are needed to its guidance and practices on the use of external consultants.
– It recommends a Northern Ireland government-wide framework for information exchange and, where appropriate, co-operation between the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Whitehall departments and departments of other devolved governments and of the government of the Republic of Ireland.
– The process within a department for approving new expenditure and business cases including, where it forms part of that process, the role of casework committees, should be thoroughly redesigned to be more rigorous, testing and independent. Such processes should be less bureaucratic and pay greater attention to examining the unique features of the project proposed.
– The Department of Finance’s distinctive role in scrutinising business cases should be searching and sceptical, guarding against over-reliance on the assurances offered by the applicant department.
– Particularly where a policy initiative is demand-led, novel, complex and/or likely to be lengthy, consideration should be given to increasing Department of Finance involvement from an early stage and on an ongoing basis, including a proactive role in monitoring the financial progress of the relevant initiative.
– In light of their legal responsibility to direct and control the department for which they are responsible, and their democratic accountability to the Northern Ireland Assembly, ministerial decisions should be taken by ministers and by no-one else.
– Notes of significant meetings between officials and ministers must be taken and retained.
– Minister responses to submissions should be formally and timeously recorded and disseminated to officials by the minister’s private office. That responsibility should not be left to policy teams. One clear corollary is the need for a better system to carry out these essential administrative tasks and the inquiry recommends a much stronger role for ministerial private offices.
– The culture and practice of record-keeping and access to records within the Northern Ireland Civil Service needs to change.
– The finance function within a department should exert the necessary authority and capability to fulfil the requirements of ‘managing public money Northern Ireland’ – namely to retain a firm grasp of the organisation’s financial position.
– The checks and balances within a department designed to catch problems early failed over many years in DETI to identify certain of the risks of the RHI or their materialisation. All departments would benefit from reviewing how their governance system works in practice.
– Better systems are needed for spotting early warnings and concerns from the public and businesses that something unexpected could be happening or going wrong with an initiative. We recommend that all Northern Ireland departments review their processes for obtaining, handling and responding to information from multiple routes.
– The Northern Ireland Assembly should consider what steps are needed to strengthen its scrutiny role.
– Ministers, special advisers and officials in Northern Ireland government departments should declare their interests annually in writing.
– The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly ought to give due consideration to an independent mechanism to assess compliance with codes of conduct in public life.
– The inquiry recommends a role in future for the Northern Ireland Audit Office in assessing and validating the extent of progress in implementing these recommendations.
The raft of recommendations also centre around the role of special advisers.
The inquiry recommended that the special adviser (Spad) code of conduct is revised, including the accountability of a Spad to the appointing minister, clarity about the working relationship between the Spads in department and Executive office.
– How Spads should act when conflicts of interest arise; expectations and rules for Spads when handling and emailing official information; and guidance about use of personal email addresses and personal mobiles for official business.
“Further, the inquiry again recognises that often, once a public inquiry has completed its work, recommendations that it has made may not be given effect by those whose responsibility it is to do so,” the inquiry added.
“The inquiry has asked the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland to monitor and pursue the effective implementation of this inquiry’s recommendations.”