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Radical shake-up of Civil Service needed to make it fit for purpose

Stormont watchdog’s damning report flags ‘stark failings’ and dysfunction of organisation


William Humphrey. Credit: Kevin Scott/Belfast Telegraph

William Humphrey. Credit: Kevin Scott/Belfast Telegraph

William Humphrey. Credit: Kevin Scott/Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland’s Civil Service needs radical reform to ensure it is fit for purpose, a report by a Stormont watchdog warns today.

The Public Accounts Committee slammed “damning and stark” failings around "fundamental issues” such as workforce planning, recruitment and performance management.

More than 1,400 posts are vacant with an “alarming” rise in the use of temporary staff and sickness rates that are almost double those of other UK jurisdictions.

Today’s report warns of a perception that the Civil Service is “hermetically sealed”, and calls for a “significant and sustained investment” in its workforce.

Committee chair William Humphrey said: “The gap between where the NICS is and where it needs to be is so wide that it requires radical transformation.

“This will not occur without strong and decisive leadership from the top and must include commitment throughout the senior Civil Service.”

Today’s report follows on from a highly-critical investigation by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, published last November.

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Auditors found:

• High sickness absence rates: In 2017-18, NICS lost 13 days to sickness on average compared to between 7 and 8 in other UK Civil Services.

• Staff vacancies that totalled 1,420.

• Temporary promotions which increased by 192% in a four-year period.

• An ageing workforce with 45% of staff aged 50 years or older, and 80% of senior civil servants aged 50 years or older.

• Agency staffing costs rising by an “alarming” 155% over the two years to March 2019 to £45.7m.

• Only four of the nine Civil Service departments having a formal workforce plan in place.

• And an end-to-end recruitment process which takes an unacceptable length of time.

The report’s findings were examined by the Public Accounts Committee, which heard evidence from a range of key people.

The committee has put forward 12 recommendations that it believes must be acted upon to ensure that the Civil Service, which employs some 22,000 staff here, can function properly.

Mr Humphrey, a DUP MLA, said: “It is apparent to us that there needs to be radical reform to ensure that the NICS is fit for purpose, both in the present and also into the future.

"One issue of great concern is the apparent lack of workforce and succession planning.

"This is even more alarming when one considers the statistics.

“Around 45% of civil servants are over the age of 50, 80% of senior civil servants are older than 50, with fewer than 1% of all civil servants younger than 24.”

The committee found that Civil Service HR needs to take a greater strategic approach, at the centre of government, to ensure it has the capacity and capability to deliver the transformation required.

The report also states the head of the Civil Service must have a key leadership role in driving this change and transformation.

The position is currently vacant, being occupied on an interim basis by Jenny Pyper.

In response, the Department of Finance said: “The need for fundamental change in the Civil Service is fully recognised. Work on this is already under way, and the NICS is making progress on a number of areas highlighted in the report.

"This includes recent large scale external recruitment exercises with over 1,800 offers of employment made at a range of grades; new approaches to recruitment planning; new learning and development programmes including those to enhance commercial skills in the areas of contract and project management; and the introduction of a range of diversity initiatives.

“The Civil Service will build on the progress made in line with the commitment for Civil Service Reform within New Decade, New Approach, and a detailed response to the recommendations will be provided to the Assembly in the next few weeks.

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