This points towards an appalling degree of incompetence, indifference or both

After the classic example of mismanagement of the Navan Centre project by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (among others), the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons today released a report on the NI Jobskills programme[PDF file], run by the Department for Employment and Learning – “Our overall impression is that Jobskills is one of the worst-run programmes that this Committee has examined in recent years”. It was introduced in 1995 and by March 2003 the Jobskills programme had cost £485million. BBC report here and Press Association report here. The heading is a quote from the report’s general conclusions Update edited text referring to previous post.From the summary of the Committee’s report

The Committee draws the following main conclusions from our examination:

Our overall impression is that Jobskills is one of the worst-run programmes that this Committee has examined in recent years. We noted a quite astonishing catalogue of failures and control weaknesses, all of which pointed to a disturbing level of complacency within the Department. While we readily acknowledge that it has to deal with some very difficult groups of young people, this does not explain the widespread shortcomings in supervision and control that existed.

It is clear that Jobskills has not received the senior management attention that it deserves. One of the most damning aspects of the Department’s handling is the extent to which a number of the most fundamental weaknesses – such as poor quality training and high levels of early leaving from the scheme – persisted over many years. We saw little evidence of the Department having tackled these problems with any great vigour, prior to the C&AG’s review. This points towards a disturbing degree of incompetence, indifference or both.

At half a billion pounds, the funding provided to this programme, since 1995, has been enormous. Given the serious and ongoing concerns about the quality of training, the poor performance of a number of training providers, the limited employment impact of the programme and the substantial ‘skills mismatch’ between Jobskills and the needs of the Northern Ireland economy, we can only conclude that, in far too many respects, Jobskills has provided poor value for money.

One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of our review was the poor quality of the Department’s answers to a number of our questions. Too many responses either failed to properly address the question or sought to defend what was clearly indefensible. We wish to make it clear that this is not acceptable and we would ask the Department of Finance and Personnel to emphasise to all Northern Ireland Departments the importance which this Committee attaches to accurate and unambiguous responses to our enquiries.[emphasis added]

The Committee welcomes the Accounting Officer’s assurance that he has accepted all of the recommendations in the C&AG’s Report. The Department should be in no doubt, however, that we want to see a much improved performance when the C&AG next examines this or any other scheme for which it is responsible.

Or else?..

  • fair_deal

    In the Belfast Agreement a raft of changes were implemented to various parts of our governance but there was one notable exception, the NI Civil Service remained untouched. However, the years of Direct Rule have led to some unhealthy attitudes and approaches as the PAC reports highlight. Time for a major reform of the NI Civil Service.

  • Alan

    Fair Deal,

    Agreed – no more cosy promotion boards, broader experience of real life and an influx of outsiders would make a big difference.

    It strikes me too that we have here a continuation of the educational discrimination that develops from the time of the 11+. After destroying confidence at the end of primary school, there is then an abysmal lack of attention to their future training needs. They are clearly not a priority for some significant sections of this society.

  • idunnomeself

    Fair deal, the Agreement totally restructured the NICS into 10 Departments and OFMDFM

    Alan, this has already happened. I think that at least 3 of the current Permament Secretaries in NI now were external appointments.

    Pete, it’s a bit harsh to say DCAL mismanaged Navan. Not only did it never manage the centre, but it inherited responsibility for a mess and quickly closed it down (despite the fact it was a minor partner). As the report points out they only gave it a small amount of money, why does your headline single them out and not the Departments/ Bodies who funded 98% of it?

    At its heart both these things show that the existence of a blame culture means that civil servants are too scared to admit to making a mistake, and therefore throw good money after bad to try to rescue projects that would be better shut down.

    But then your report shows why they act like this- because the one Department that faced the problem and pulled the plug is the one you singled out for blame..

  • Pete Baker

    idm

    It may be a bit harsh, and certainly others share responsibility for the mismanagement of the Navan Centre, but the link does go to the previous post and the PAC report on the Navan Centre which noted –

    “We expect the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to ensure that the handling of any future projects in this sector fully reflects the experience of this expensive failure.”

    Now for this topic..

    As for a blame culture preventing civil servants admitting mistakes.. the PAC report noted, and I highlighted –

    One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of our review was the poor quality of the Department’s answers to a number of our questions. Too many responses either failed to properly address the question or sought to defend what was clearly indefensible. We wish to make it clear that this is not acceptable and we would ask the Department of Finance and Personnel to emphasise to all Northern Ireland Departments the importance which this Committee attaches to accurate and unambiguous responses to our enquiries.

    btw.. did you miss the “incompetent, indifferent or both” quote?

  • Alan

    *Alan, this has already happened. I think that at least 3 of the current Permament Secretaries in NI now were external appointments.*

    Yes, but only those posts are open, we haven’t seen the opening of all posts throughout the civil service. There is still a hard core of staff who are dependent upon the system for their future ambitions. Where is the incentive to say that the emperor has no clothes, when you aspire to be an emperor yourself?

    You can talk about blame culture, but, there seems to be no come-back for incompetence at the level we are discussing – don’t forget, it was half a billion pounds that were ill-spent. What could have been done with just a fraction of this money?

    Anyone interested in the inability of the department to answer questions should check out the uncorrected oral evidence at

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmpubacc/uc417-i/uc41702.htm

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    The NI civil service has some very serious and deep seated organizational and cultural problems. A mere redrawing of the boxes around 10 departments is not reform. People always do this in response to needed reform they simply redraw the org chart and say ‘look how much we changed’ but the cultural DNA of the organization stays untouched and all the previous weaknesses quickly resurface.

    The real issue is one of a lack of vigorous and effective accountability at a local level. Supervision is poor. Stormont should be filling the role although of course it would need to grow up politically from a ‘lets lift the rug and crow about failures’ posturing that most politicians want to get in to. Civil servants will hide failure so long as it is deemed a career killer and this lack of experimentation kills creativity and makes the organization weaker. As I said it’s a cultural organizational issue and not an easy one to get to grips with. How do you inspire positive deviance without allowing Enron style chaos to ensure? A good first step might be to identify and then resolve the organizational cultural issues that make the NICS so defensive that they are unable to view an enquiry of this sort as a positive chance to learn new lessons and get stronger and instead indulge in pointless evasion.

  • Pete Baker

    Duncan

    One issue I’d take with your comment regarding the “‘lets lift the rug and crow about failures’ posturing that most politicians want to get in to” is that here we have an example in which failure clearly took place.. and yet no-one’s career is being killed, or even affect by it.

    There’s a lack of accountability alright, but it’s the fact that, even when incompetence, indifference or both is exposed, there appears to be no consequences that is a major part of the problem.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    It probably depends on which. Incompetence is simply a lack of the appropriate competence. That can be rectified by developing new individual or organizational competencies. Indifference is possibly worse and presents a different challenge. I suppose as best I can explain it my concern is that if we simply nail everyone who makes a mistake we encourage them to conceal mistakes and indulge in as much risk averse behavior as possible. I would argue that that stifles organizational creativity and ultimately success.

    The people involved should not be able to simply plod on as before but the question for the authority holding them accountability is whether punishing them would do any good. The urge to punish or scapegoat is a strong and natural one but I doubt that it would actually help to strengthen the organization and reduce the risk of future incidences. It’s really a bigger cultural problem. We all see failure in a negative light but I think whilst we do not want to go down the politically correct and absurd path of avoiding all failure we simply need to re-conceptualize it as ‘experiments that didn’t succeed’ not failures. We know that all experiments don’t work that’s in fact the nature of experimentation so if we can bring that norm to an organization perhaps we can help develop more experimental behavior but without the negative associations surrounding failure. What I think you are really complaining about is not no one gets punished but rather, if we have identified a problem the how do we stimulate change to try to prevent it happening again. I can see using the idea of firing, or demoting, or simply preventing promotion as behavioral tools is attractive but they just seem like very blunt instruments to me.

  • Pete Baker

    Actually, Duncan, my argument would be that the lack of a threat of being fired has encouraged the culture of incompetence, indifference or both.. although, admittedly, that has been exacerbated as the result of a lack of local accountability.

    But the Jobskills programme can hardly be described as an experiment. It has been running for 10 years. That’s plenty of time for any problems to be identified and addressed. The actual problem is that no-one accepted the responsibility to do that.

    Changing that culture wil require more than simply re-conceptualizing the problem.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    I don’t think I communicated my points very well. The absence of negative reinforcements may indeed have contributed to a culture of incompetence or indifference or both but the absence of positive reinforcements may also have had this impact. I don’t advocate the entire absence of these mechanisms but I think that often we avoid dealing with the real problem by simply firing or removing a slice of the human capital in an organization. Then we wonder why the same problems recur with different people. Do you think the exact same people have been involved for the whole 10 years? If not then did the system help to create their incompetence or did their incompetence create the system? I happen to think that systems shape peoples behavior a great deal as we all move to fulfill expected roles within the system in which we operate. The consequence in a poor system like the NICS is the repeat occurrence of such problems as this. So simply firing all the ‘incompetent’ folks is really not going to solve the problem even though it appears an attractive and direct solution.

    On the experimenting point. I don’t mean to conceive of the whole job skills program as an experiment. But perhaps within it there were areas that were better than others and the point of a better culture of experimenting would be the capacity to share those successes i.e. lateral communication. If workers were encouraged within narrow parameters to try new ways of making jobskills work better they could have found some better mechanisms at that level communicated them as positive deviations or best practice and then replicated them across the whole project. That’s what I meant by experimentation.

  • idunnomeself

    Pete,

    Yes, the point is that DCAL will be responsible for projects like Navan in the future, so it was their lesson to learn- but NOT their mistake in the past.

    If I sound touchy it’s because I know someone in DCAL who worked on this and they were praised for the quality of their response!

    Alan,
    Thats just not true. There are jobs advertised all the time at high grades below perm sec. most staff work in lower grades and there are external competitions at AA, EO2 and Staff Officer level. Next you’ll be complaining about the low staff turnover- a sure sign that it’s a good organisation.

    DSD/ PB
    One issue is if the Department failed because it had been told to do something that was never going to work, or if it failed because it was bad at doing it.

    There is a policical imperative at the moment to do things (or to be seen to do things) about things like long term unemployment or community regeneration. These are complex issues and may well be out of the control of a Department (Getting disaffected youths to *want* to learn?)

    But they will be told by politicians to address these problems, and given money to do that. The Minister is responsible for agreeing the strategy taken.

    And Pete here lies the nub of your ‘blame someone’ idea. The only person who decides anything is the Minister. Ministers get fired all the time.

  • fair_deal

    IDM

    “the Agreement totally restructured the NICS into 10 Departments and OFMDFM ”

    Moving the chairs around is not reform

  • Pete Baker

    And Pete here lies the nub of your ‘blame someone’ idea.

    You still sound touchy, idm, my idea is not ‘blame someone’ but, rather, let’s see at least an attempt at accountability.

    Duncan

    I’m not saying that the entire edifice doesn’t need restructuring.. far from it.. I’d be in favour of tearing the whole damn thing down and rebuilding from scratch [/hyperbole]

    A slight exaggeration there, admittedly, but at the minute there appears to be no activity that will result in any sanction against those who are supposed to be public servants.

    But let’s not give that job to management consultants, eh?

    Instead, let’s begin by firing those who are incompetent.

  • idunnomeself

    fair_deal

    Your original post doesn’t say anything about reform. It says ‘changes’ and that the NICS was untouched. I take it you are acepting that this was incorrect..

    Pete

    I told you why I sound touchy!

    Fire the responsible Minister, that’s how the accountability system works, and if the Government doesn’t we vote them out next time round.

  • wild turkey

    duncan

    your line about cultural dna hits the nail on the head. after a 15 year career i have recently left the public service. Based on my experience a significant sequence in the cultural dna of NICs is CYA: cover your ass.
    from this genetic imperative flows the risk aversion, the instinctive need to dissemble rather than confront and respond to issues, denial and the inability to acknowledge and learn from mistakes (which is a potential organisational asset).

    how to effect change is hugely problematic. a first and necessary condition is ongoing relentless scrutiny and accountability at a local level. reptiles don’t like the sun.

    alan, thanks for the pointer to the ‘uncorrected’ evidence. i am reminded of gore vidals response to a critic

    ‘The Jesuits like to say: “The wise man never lies.” But in the army of my day, any soldier (or indeed discomfited general) who spent too much time twisting about the language of regulations in his own favor was called a guardhouse lawyer. I now put the case on the evidence at hand, that we have here a compulsive guard-house lawyer or quibbler. Straight sentences must be bent like pretzels to change meanings to score points. But then much of what passes for discourse in these states is simply hustling words to get them to mean what they don’t.