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Nelson McCausland

Weighing up if MLAs really do need their 5-a-day should be start of civil service reform

Nelson McCausland

Now the Assembly's back after a three-year hiatus, we'll all be watching to see how efficient it is


Questions will be raised about the effectiveness of the Assembly

Questions will be raised about the effectiveness of the Assembly


Questions will be raised about the effectiveness of the Assembly

If I say five-a-day, you probably think of the number of portions of fruit and vegetables that health experts say we are supposed to eat every day for the sake of our health. However, for MLAs at Stormont, five-a-day has another meaning. It is the number of written questions an MLA can ask to ministers every day. So with five working days a week and five questions a day, you can ask 25 written questions a week. Departments then have 10 working days to answer them.

Written questions to ministers, oral questions during Question Time, and the operation of Assembly committees are some of the ways that members can raise issues and hold ministers to account and that is part of the role of an MLA.

Earlier this week I spent an hour reading through all the written questions that have been asked over the past few weeks since the return of the Assembly. That may seem like the sad pastime of a political anorak, but in fact some of the questions raised interesting issues. I now know, for example, that Northern Ireland is one of the most deforested parts of Europe and that we should be planting more trees. I also know that there is a roadway in Strabane named Nancy's Lane and that at least one MLA wants to see it resurfaced.

The number of questions from each MLA varies greatly, but so too does the quality of the questions, ranging from the vague and vacuous to the focused and forensic.

Quality is just as important as quantity, but in every legislative forum there will be those whose approach is reflected in the title of the 1960s sitcom Never Mind the Quality Feel the Width.

There is a lot of public discussion about the efficiency and effectiveness of the Assembly with a particular focus on ministers and special advisers or 'Spads'. However after three years when devolution was suspended, many members of the public, as well as journalists and commentators, will be looking to see how efficient and effective the whole system is and MLAs will be under intense scrutiny.

Changing the Civil Service would be a major challenge, but change is needed and not just in Great Britain

So too will be the civil servants.

Back in December several newspapers reported that Dominic Cummings, the Downing Street strategist, would "spearhead a radicalist overhaul of the Civil Service" in Great Britain.

In England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, there have been a succession of news stories of major public sector projects going wrong, going way over budget or going way over time, or in some cases a combination of all three.

There is an ongoing dispute in Scotland about the building of two ferry boats with the shipyard going into administration, the project now £100m over budget, the work only half completed and likely to be three years overdue. There the blame game is between the Scottish government and the private sector.

Meanwhile, in England the HS2 railway project is billions of pounds over budget and years behind schedule because the Government did not understand the risks involved. In fact, it may go ahead only because it is too late to stop it. The first phase was to be completed by 2026 but could be as much as a decade late.

IT systems are especially problematic and when the Westminster government ordered a new computer system for Universal Credit, the process was shambolic. As much as £1bn was wasted on a computer system that wasn't essential!

A new children's hospital in Dublin is another example of the problem with the cost of £2bn now three times the original estimate.

One of the factors behind this is 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 generalist skills, such as personnel management, which helps with their career progression. However, it means that there is not enough specialist expertise in the system.

There is an over-reliance on buying in consultants with civil servants then saying that they were acting "on the advice of a consultant". However, we have seen too many examples of external consultants whose work was deeply flawed.

Changing the Civil Service would be a major challenge, but change is needed and not just in Great Britain.

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