Dave Penman: Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill’s failure to appoint a civil service head an abdication of responsibility

The first and deputy first ministers’ failure to appoint a new head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) may not be at the forefront of people’s minds given the public health and economic emergencies we’re facing.

By Dave Penman
Monday, 12th October 2020, 8:04 am
Dave Penman said the people of Northern Ireland deserve a 'strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service'
Dave Penman said the people of Northern Ireland deserve a 'strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service'

That though, is exactly why it’s so important and in a crowded field of political abdications of responsibility, this one from the elected leaders of Northern Ireland is vying for the Oscar.

The civil service is a funny old beast. It rarely tops polls of public sympathy and much of what it does goes unseen. It’s a combination of those delivering direct services from the state, such as Universal Credit, prosecutions and the like, to those that help deliver or manage other areas of public service, such as health or local government.

The success or failure of the civil service affects all areas of public service but also the wider economy, supporting business and dealing with regulation, which is ever more vital as we approach the Brexit cliff edge.

As well as delivering services, civil servants support ministers directly. Whether it’s implementing a new idea for improving educational standards or indeed responding to a public health emergency, civil servants will marshal advice from experts, look at costs and outcomes, and then give ministers options.

We take a lot of this for granted but it’s why we have an impartial, permanent civil service. This is no accident, it means that civil servants are appointed for what they can do, not what they believe. A civil servant has a professional obligation to provide the best objective advice to ministers, then once a decision has been taken, to act on it, regardless of their own political views. It gives civil servants the confidence to provide ministers with the advice they need, which is not always the advice they want. The separation of the powers from ministers to hire and fire is hard wired in to our system, as it makes for better government.

The civil service also acts as a check and balance on ministers. They are a source of challenge on propriety and value for money, have a professional obligation to uphold the rule of law, and are there to serve the public interest. It’s not perfect, no large organisation is, and when mistakes are made, they can be doozies. No private company deals with the big issues or big numbers that government does, so when it goes wrong, as we’ve seen with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, it can have enormous consequences.

When the outgoing head of the service, David Sterling, announced his retirement, he gave ministers nine months to find a replacement. Ministers prevaricated before a national recruitment exercise was launched, overseen by the independent Civil Service Commission. This produced three final candidates, all of whom they considered appointable.

The first and deputy first minister were to interview and choose from this shortlist, a process they introduced for the first time a decade ago. The delay was bad enough, as it left no opportunity for a handover, but to completely fail to appoint a replacement is simply an abdication of responsibility.

As the government grapples with Covid-19 and Brexit, it is vital the civil service has someone to lead, inspire and reform it as it faces the many challenges ahead. The failure to appoint a new head is not only a failure of collective leadership but demonstrates the dysfunctionality of a process that allows elected ministers to put party politics over public interest.

I recognise that Northern Ireland has a unique political history and that the creation of power-sharing in Stormont reflects that. This, however, is about effective government. Of course the first minister and deputy first minister should have confidence in whoever is selected to lead the NICS. They should help shape the criteria for the role and set out the type of candidate they want, but this debacle clearly demonstrates they should not have the final say on the appointment of civil servants at any level.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and that requires a strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service.

• Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA, the union which represents senior civil servants.