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Nelson McCausland

Three years and 656 pages later, the RHI inquiry ends without the political scalps some predicted

Nelson McCausland

Sir Patrick Coghlin's report showed the need for more specialists in the civil service, writes Nelson McCausland


Sir Patrick Coghlin says there is more need for specific expertise in the NHS

Sir Patrick Coghlin says there is more need for specific expertise in the NHS

Sir Patrick Coghlin says there is more need for specific expertise in the NHS

After three years of feverish speculation about the RHI debacle, the long-awaited report by Sir Patrick Coghlin finally appeared last Friday, when the retired judge presented his inquiry report in the old Senate Chamber at Stormont.

The inquiry was set up in January 2017 and started hearing oral evidence in November 2017, so after three years of forensic interrogation there can be little doubt about the thoroughness of the inquiry.

The report runs to three volumes and 656 pages and I suspect few people will read them all.

However, many people will have seen the televised launch in which Sir Patrick summarised his findings. It was an impressive presentation that reflected the thoroughness of the inquiry and Sir Patrick's own judicial experience.

Those who had been salivating incessantly at the prospect of a political scalp were disappointed, even if they did not admit it.

Moreover, the wilder speculation and innuendo that had been circulating in some sections of the media was shown to be untrue. Sir Patrick said unequivocally that corruption was not the cause of the debacle.

There had been unacceptable behaviour, but Sir Patrick identified a catalogue of systemic failures that combined to produce the debacle and the strongest criticism was reserved for the civil service and "the system" in general. This was indeed a "perfect storm".

Each government department covers a wide and disparate range of areas and all ministers rely heavily on briefing papers, of which they will receive many every day. Those papers are supposed to summarise the key facts and provide an analysis.

However, with RHI there was evidence of officials having responsibility for areas that they did not fully understand and of the minister being given briefing papers that had errors and omissions.

It is clear that the system was simply not up to the job and that is why the report produced a series of recommendations that would address the systemic shortcomings.

The report has been largely overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and indeed that story will dominate the news for some time to come.

Nevertheless, the RHI report must not be allowed to gather dust on an office shelf.

It is too important for that and I was especially struck by some words of Sir Patrick at the launch of his report when he said that there was a need for more specialists and more specialist expertise in the public sector. We have too many generalists and not enough specialists.

Six weeks ago, I wrote a column in this newspaper in which I highlighted a number of Government debacles in England, Scotland and the Irish Republic. We are not unique.

I said that one of the factors was that most civil servants are generalists who move from one area of government to another every few years.

This ensures that they have the opportunity to develop a range of generic skills, such as project management, which helps with their career progression.

However, it means that there is not enough specialist expertise in the system. I was pleased that the same point was emphasised last week by Sir Patrick.

Indeed, it was made by one of the inquiry witnesses back in December 2017 when a senior economist at Stormont told the inquiry that most staff lack specialist expertise for a specific policy area. There are too many generalists and not enough specialists.

It may not have mattered so much under direct rule when NIO ministers simply replicated GB policies and there was little local innovation.

However, even then I was often frustrated by the lack of specialist knowledge in the system and the constant turnover of civil servants as they moved from one department to another.

With the lack of specialists it took officials some time to acquire a general knowledge of their area of work and even then they were not specialists.

Moreover it seemed that as soon as they had familiarised themselves with their subject area they were moved on to another area and the process started all over again.

We need a thorough review of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Coghlin report provides good evidence of what needs to be put right. If that happens, the money spent on the report will have been well spent.

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