Spend taxpayers’ money as if it is your own, auditor tells civil servants

Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly
Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly

There needs to be a radical cultural change within the Northern Ireland Civil Service, with civil servants spending public money in the same way they would spend their own cash, the most senior scrutineer of public expenditure in Northern Ireland has said.

In a blistering critique of how the Northern Ireland Civil Service operates, Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly made clear that he does not believe Stormont civil servants are currently treating taxpayers’ money with appropriate care and respect.

Mr Donnelly, a man who rarely speaks in public but whose job involves poring over government accounts and quizzing civil servants, spoke bluntly to Sir Patrick Coghlin’s RHI Inquiry ahead of its final week of evidence next week.

Yesterday was another day of grim evidence for the body of civil servants who next week Secretary of State Karen Bradley plans to give the power to take ministerial decisions without any democratic oversight.

Mr Donnelly – whose June 2016 report into the RHI scandal first exposed it to public scrutiny – told the inquiry that many of the practices which led to that scandal were not unique to that situation but had become embedded within the civil service.

He said: “It is clear to me that value for money is not front and centre in the mindset of too many civil servants...and maybe not enough interest is taken in the issue of over-compensation.”

He added: “Every public official should treat taxpayers’ money exactly the same as they treat their own money - it doesn’t matter where that money comes from...I think that needs to be ingrained in the mindset of a whole generation of civil servants.”

He expressed concern at suggestions from some civil servants that they had thought differently about the RHI funding because they believed that the entire bill would be footed by the Treasury in London rather than from their budget.

Mr Donnelly, who has spent three and a half decades in the Northern Ireland Audit Office, said he believed that civil servants got more “brownie points” for meeting targets and spending public money than they did for achieving value for money for taxpayers.

He said there was a “huge dichotomy” between “the values as espoused in high level statements of values...and what’s actually going on day to day in departments”.

Mr Donnell said that in some areas of the civil service officials were “very proud” that they were meeting targets but to do so they were taking multiple “shortcuts”.

At the conclusion of Mr Donnell’s evidence yesterday, inquiry panel member Dame Una O’Brien, a former senior Whitehall civil servant, said to him: “Audit is a money issue and people would expect you to talk about figures and numbers.

“But I think it is very striking that today you’ve talked about culture, leadership and behaviours as being some of the root issues that need to be addressed...have I understood that?”

Mr Donnelly said: “You’ve captured that perfectly. As I have thought more and more about this particular case, I think we could make many recommendations about things like risk management and project management, all the rest of it – but unless there’s a step change in the behaviour, culture and leadership, we’re not going to make nearly enough progress.”