Is NI capable of public service reform?

In the midst of the Brexit entertainment, the RHI inquiry has been keeping Stormont occupied. Whatever the political fallout, it is evident already that it will demonstrate something beyond doubt – Northern Ireland’s Civil Service is in need of significant reform.

The media are highlighting the apparently obvious issue that the crux of the problem was that generalist civil servants could not fully comprehend a specialist issue (renewable energy). Perhaps the real issue, however, is that many surely noted the nonsense of offering subsidies greater than the actual value, but seemingly no one felt able to do anything about raising it.

I recently glanced at the application pack for a job in the NI Civil Service (which, by the way, is not a particularly significant employer here – many jobs which would be seen as “civil service” are in fact government jobs elsewhere, e.g. in a Health Trust). The advert specifically noted that the job was open to people from outwith the Civil Service. Yet, in practice, it wasn’t.

For, to have a reasonable chance at getting such a position, a candidate was required a strong knowledge of a vast table of competencies. Realistically, such competencies cannot be picked up off a page; in practice, those who could demonstrate those competencies from their past professional career would be at an advantage, meaning those who already knew them (i.e. those already in the Civil Service) would be at an advantage. This is in fact discrimination – it may be unintentional, but inevitably those setting the terms of the position will set them in a way biased towards themselves. This is widely recognised when it comes to tackling sexual discrimination or religious discrimination. Here was another example. An organisation really open to outsiders would not be forcing them into a straitjacket of internally recognised competencies before they even enter – quite on the contrary, it would be considering what additional skills and indeed ways of working they could bring into Service and emphasising those as priority.

When it comes to reform, this is very troubling. The Review of Public Administration was an example of such a shambles. The whole purpose was to save money and deliver what was known as “co-terminosity” – so that Council boundaries, police district boundaries, Health Trust boundaries and so on would align. Having taken so long that an additional local government election was required, the outcome astonishingly failed to meet either requirement. It would, literally, have been better not to do it at all.

Areas such as the Bengoa reforms are even more complex and many multiples of times more important. So the question has to be asked honestly: are we really up to it?

And then we have the vast complications of Brexit. Here, over 140 powers will be added to the devolved mix, even all other things being equal (and they may not be). Yet there will be a scant resource allocation coming with them. This threatens to cause paralysis in Whitehall, never mind Stormont. It will require vast reform – “doing more with less” as the slogan goes.

Add to this the prospect of marked additional powers to manage Northern Ireland’s specific solutions, changes to financing including corporation tax powers and reform of the education system. We have to ask serious questions about how any administration could possibly be prepared. However, this administration – one where new skills and thinking are actually discriminated against even when the need for them is recognised – will surely be particularly unprepared without reforming itself.

It is not only new skills and new thinking which will obviously be required once the RHI Inquiry is finished, but also the whole notion of the “generalist” civil servant. Rightly or wrongly, people will pose the question: can the same person drift expertly between managing the introduction of PIP one day to overseeing policy on the replacement of CAP the next? Is this a reasonable expectation of anyone?

Nevertheless, the broader issue seems why lower ranks seem disempowered (from, for example, raising queries when subsidy levels appear to exceed actual outlay). Northern Ireland’s administration needs experts with experience, coming most likely from outside the Service to work at least alongside generalists; and it needs people who will speak up, without fearing for their promotion prospects as a result. This is the level of the reform required.

One of the interesting aspects of an article from Queen’s University about additional powers for Northern Ireland post-Brexit was the implication that the public needs to be better informed and take more care. This perhaps is the crux of it. Bungles around RPA or RHI may sound like an alphabet soup, but they are not inconsequential. We need a public sector which is better at reform (including of itself), and a public which is better at caring about it.

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One thought on “Is NI capable of public service reform?

  1. korhomme says:

    My information is second/third hand. Any half-competent businessperson can run rings around the civil service when it comes to contracts. The civil service relies on outside experts or consultants; but these follow a very narrow remit, so if they identify problems, they use this as a lever to get further commissions — they aren’t altruistic.

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