What is the civil service for?

A flabbergasted Eddie McGrady MP was left pondering “Have we a civil service capable of doing their own job or are we paying through the nose for consultants to do everything for us?” after his parliamentary question revealed the consultants’ advice on water service changes will cost £18m. In 2004 the National Audit Office critised all NI departments for spending the same amount on consultants in one year, now the same will be spent on one project. All major reviews of the civil service have highlighted the need for greater policy expertise but such recommendations have been persistently ignored, with such escalating costs is it time to finally get around to implementing it?

  • patrique

    The only people who constantly complain about nonsense like this, and the only people who try to prevent this, are the unions, or NIPSA to be precise.

    But unions get a bad press and are ignored. Things like this happen all the time in the Civil Service. How about a one billion computer system in the CSA which doesn’t work? Hardly a word about that.

    Unfortunately whilst the media portray the ordinary lower grade civil servant as a coffee drinking layabout, these things will continue to happen. And most of these decisions, Mr McGrady should note, are taken by politicians, and career minded civil servants are too timid to tell them to “wise up”. They then pass the order down the ranks, and everyone is afraid to say “wise up”, until we arrive at the staff who actually do the work complain, but by then it is too late.

    Half of the senior civil servants and ministers should be locked up for wasting public money. It makes the Northern Bank raid appear petty by comparison.

  • dalek

    The response to the original report back in 2004 from senior management who had given the green light to all those flawed consultancies was to critiscise more junior staff for implementing their policies!A moratorium on consultancies unless absolutely necessary was implemented and was implemented to the letter or ignored in equal measure depending on the senior manager.

    Most middle ranking civil servants are not qualified to perform economic appraisals as they are not trained as such and are neither economists or accountants so that is why these things are outsourced and ironically a lot of the out sourcing to hugely expensive consultancy firms was on the reccomendation of the self same audit office!

    The guidelines on procurement are very clear as to how consultants are chosen although in practice there may be those that do not follow guidelines and as such certain companies do rather well.

    And I agree with Patrique in that at least there is a tangible outcome from the consultancies and there are clearly set out reasons for audit purposes as to how money is spent unlike the CSA computer system where infinitly more money has been pissed down the gutter and thats only one system. There are a couple more in the same department so multiply the waste when you factor in the other 10 departments. I could go on grrrr.

  • joeCanuck

    I was saddled many times in my career with consultants brought in by senior management.
    The experience was invariably the same – the consultants told you exactly what you wanted them to! The senior managers were then off the hook if things went wrong, which they sometimes do in every company.

  • aquifer

    You got it Joe.

    There are fundamental flaws in the British (and Irish) civil service model.

    The civil service grade and boarding system is a replica of a self-selecting caste or class system where consensus and compliance are overvalued. It is presumed that managers are mobile generalists when often an insight into a specialist area is needed. There is the age based increment system which again discourages risk taking, although this has fallen foul of EU employment rights legislation. -it is age discrimination.

    The employment and early entry conditions and criteria for the civil service attract the risk averse, who surprisingly enough may avoid taking big decisions, or have a consultant provide cover for a decision. Information technology reduces the need for routine form processing. Unfortunately a lot of people were recruited with a skillset for this, or for drilling the form processors, but it takes smarter people to brief smart consultants and control costs on complex projects.

    There is also often a blame culture, or uber-accountability, which discourages personal initiative and innovation. And then add in freedom of information, equality, human rights, EU procurement law etc etc.

    In some ways its surprising how effective the civil service are. A lot of it is probably due to them having attracted bright people when local employment prospects were otherwise rubbish.

  • dalek

    thanks to aquifer for spelling the above out particularly the uber-accountability point. Saved me from having to make a similar point.

  • Aaron McDaid (was Occasional Commentator)

    The voters get the politicians (and hence government) they deserve. Politicians should be held entirely responsible for anything that happens on their watch. If you appoint the consultant, you’re just as much to blame for the cockup as if you made it yourself. If they don’t want to be held accountable they can bloody well quit the job. But the moronic media and people let politicians away with too much.

    Football managers obviously can’t be blamed for a player’s inability to score, but he/she still has the blame for choosing the players!

  • Crataegus

    We all employ consultants to do that which we can’t do ourselves. It may be a solicitor or accountant or perhaps an architect or engineer or surgeon. Generally we employ them with a specific aim in mind and look for measurable results. If you can’t give clear directions and do not have results that are measurable you shouldn’t be employing anyone. Same applies to the civil service and any business. If someone has to bring consultants in to do a major review of structures or tasks that should be done in house it is a clear indication that those employed should be replaced immediately.


    You are right about the risk averse culture and there is also a lack of devolved authority within the system and lack of reward for those who are effective and equally lack of pain for those who are fairly useless. The system breeds sycophantic yes men, and only fools employ or listen to such people.

  • idunnomeself

    Is Eddie McGrady prepared to emply people on civil service contracts with the necessary skills?

    IE very specialised, very expensive skills they need for a short while only?

    Civil servants are not well paid, if they train their people in these jobs they will leave and join a consultancy firm because they won’t ever get oaid enough in the civil service, the use of consultants is the only way to do it, and if civil servants in NIPSA really think they’re up to doing the job themselves they should leave and join PWC..

  • idunnomeself

    It’s risk averse because Civil servants aren’t meant to take policy risks, they are meant to do what the Government (in particular the Minister) tell them to do

    Obviously this would be madness in the Private sector, but the public sector and private sectors are different

    A lot of the comments on this thread seem to think that Eddie McGrady is complaining that the consultancy on this project has been badly managed/ cost more than it should. He isn’t, he’s questioning the need for it in the first place, there is no implication that they have paid over the odds.

    If it is necessary McGrady has no point, perhaps he will lend his undoubted expertise on major privaitasation schemes to Water Service for free in the future

  • Animus

    Consultants often get to take the heat for projects which senior civil servants are unwilling/unable to do themselves. There is a great deal of policy expertise further up the food chain but these people are often cosy enough in their posts not to want to ruffle any feathers. Those who want those positions aren’t generally able to make decisions and quickly learn that keeping one’s head down is the way to get along.

    Another issue is that civil servants who are fairly good at a job tend to be shuffled from department to department, particularly since the freeze on promotion. So when one person who is particularly knowledgable is transferred, the skills go with them.

    If anything, I think the raft of equality legislation is a positive measure – before policy-making emphasised short-term cost savings over long-term investment. There is a still a silo effect in many departments trying to pinch pennies wherever possible though.

    Most consultants working on restructuring/policy initiatives contribute little other than a faux sense of ‘independence’ and a big bill. They often lack the knowledge of their subjects and write what they are told. And often their ‘recommendations’ are a surprise to no one. Colossal waste of money.

  • Crataegus


    The point you make about the Civil Service not being in the business of taking risk is valid only up to a point. Yes government sets policy (and we have a vacuum at present) but the Civil Service implements and to implement you have to make decisions.

    I have a reasonable level of exposure to fairly senior civil servants and in my opinion a good percentage spend their time covering their backs. Quite a few seem more interested in building their personal empire rather than delivering the service.

    To look at it another way I buy a piece of land and decide to build apartments with shops below, that is if you like the policy decision. I then employ a design team, I expect them to take the initiative, use their skills, advise of possibilities as they unfold keep to program and deliver the brief. If they didn’t do this they would be called in fairly sharp. In the Civil Service there really doesn’t seem to be that same culture of can do, get it done and move on to the next. I agree that some line managers should perhaps be paid incentives but also if people don’t have a positive attitude and are not delivering they should be looking for another job.

    I have read a fair number of reports by various people over the years, some produced internally and some externally and often I have to ask WHY was this written, and often the answer is because someone hasn’t the balls to make the decision himself so he commissions a report and follows its recommendations.

    Another area that is worth investigation is the purification of business plans and feasibility studies for various grant applications. Most are not worth the paper they are written on and are at best out of date by the time the project materialises.

  • I remember a talk by someone in private industry, reflecting on the experience of working with the civil service. He mentioned three main points

    1. not taking decisions (if you make a decision, you can be blamed – see uber-accountability and blame culture above)

    2. managers only talking to peers, and not to the staff who are doing the work and know how it is going, or what is needed.

    3. revenue-neutrality. Changes cannot cost any more than doing things the old way.