Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: If RHI inquiry has told us anything it’s that Civil Service doesn’t put enough store in experience

There is no collective memory of what took place before in too many Stormont departments, says Nelson McCausland.

Senior civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick giving evidence at the RHI Inquiry
Senior civil servant Dr Andrew McCormick giving evidence at the RHI Inquiry

The RHI inquiry is ongoing and the headlines are often devoted to what is seen as sensational, or unsavoury, especially if it can be attached to a politician. There is still much that is disputed and that is why I have refrained from commenting. I believe we are best to await the final report before coming to conclusions.

However, there are a few things that have not been disputed. One in particular caught my attention. When he was giving evidence, Dr Andrew McCormick, a senior civil servant, said that, as regards the Civil Service: “Our balance has been too much in favour of generalism and not enough in terms of depth of expertise.” He identified that as one of the factors as to why things went wrong.

This was the view of a senior civil servant and, therefore, especially noteworthy. However, while it was reported in the media, it did not receive the attention it deserved. Too many people prefer the sensational and the unsavoury to the insightful, yet the insightful may well be the most important.

Down through the years, working in the cultural sector and then later as an MLA and minister, I have met and worked with many civil servants and I hold most of them in high regard.

However, on the basis of that experience, I believe that Dr McCormick was absolutely right and we should be grateful to him for saying it, even if it did not receive the recognition it merited.

Earlier this year, I met a civil servant whom I knew and congratulated her on her new appointment.

I already knew her, because I had met her when she was working in another department with an entirely different remit and, in fact, I had met her before that, when she was working in another post on another subject.

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Now, what struck me about this was that the subject areas on which she was working were so entirely different. A civil servant could be working today in the Department for Infrastructure on a roads project and then be moved from there to the Department for Communities to deal with welfare reform and then on to the Department of Health.

There is no way in which a person could have a depth of expertise, or even be expected to have a depth of expertise, in all of these areas. Civil servants may well have a breadth of expertise, but for most of them their knowledge will be broad and generalist, rather than detailed and in-depth.

There is an emphasis on skills, such as problem-solving and project management, which are, by their nature, generalist, and not enough emphasis on having in-house and in-depth expertise.

Shortly after devolution in 1999, I was working in the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council and went to meet a civil servant. He had been in post for some months and I was struck by his extremely tidy desk and set of carefully sharpened pencils, but I was shocked to find that he had almost no in-depth knowledge of his new area of responsibility.

Without that depth of in-house expertise in the Civil Service there is, then, an over-reliance on external consultants.

It may be good for the consultancy sector, but does it produce good outcomes? We need civil servants who can spot when the consultants get it wrong.

Civil servants are often moved around to enable them to increase their experience of skills, such as project management or managing a team. It is part of their professional development and that generalist experience and expertise helps them on their career path within the Civil Service. That is understandable in the current system, but is that system fit-for-purpose?

The movement of staff from department to department also means that there is often a lack of corporate memory and so work is sometimes undertaken unnecessarily, or unwisely, because there is no corporate memory of what happened previously. I don’t know if the same issues prevail in Great Britain and, indeed, outside the United Kingdom and it could be that the issue is more acute in Northern Ireland because we are a small country.

However, I do hope that Dr McCormick’s insight is not forgotten and that it is followed through.

In the meantime, we should all be grateful to him for his candour.

Belfast Telegraph


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