Time to give the civil service a bolder hand

At this distance in London, I’m getting mixed messages about the future of the Executive. On the one hand, I sit up and take notice when as seasoned a commentator as Ed Curran fears it may be sinking. On the other, when even Sammy Wilson declares the devolution of policing and justice to be a DUP objective , I’m not exactly comforted – there are plenty of gets-outs in that – but I chalk up a modest positive. The big storms lie some way ahead. Politically, the DUP seem transfixed by the looming threat of Jim Allister in the general election and an Assembly election that could see Sinn Fein break a psychological barrier and become the largest single party. Sinn Fein are in no great shape either as the old slogans ring increasingly hollow. Yet neither party’s dominance seems seriously threatened. In any realistic assessment of electoral chances, I’m not clear how a voluntary coalition could prevent Sinn Fein from cashing in . Designations are surely not the main problem here. Indeed if the powers that be scrapped the party qualification and relied on designations, that perceived problem might be solved. But there’s no way the two Governments are likely to oblige. Instead they will nail the local parties to the floor and tell them to get on with it or suffer the green-tinged, direct rule consequences. Behind the nervous politics lies the equally looming moment of truth over public spending cuts, from next year if the Conservatives win, from 2011 if against all the odds, it’s Labour again. Complementing Richard Barnett’s report on economic development is Derek Birrrell’s on the low impact of devolution on social policy. Lke Barnett, Birrell largely confirms what we already know. From the press release, he has little to say on how to achieve policy making improvements. but he identifies the painfully slow decision making process that has heightened the impression of deadlock. At least the DUP anticipated this when they required the ministerial code to be strengthened to try to improve decision taking. But this has proved inadequate, not least due to their own political responses and evasions over everything from academic selection to water rates and economic development, and Sinn Fein’s largely unsuccessful concentration on identity politics. You simply cannot have coherent policies if every minister sings a different song. It must be a nightmare for the civil service whose job it is as ever to keep the show on the road.

What might help is the sort of co-ordination for coalitions that has evolved in Canada and New Zealand. In these countries parties are pressed to negotiate prior agreements and systems of policy co-ordination as under the NZ rubric of “ good faith and no surprises”. As the custodians of good government, the civil service takes a key role in this. Despite the hopes placed on it, the political mechanism of the FMDFM appears to be malfunctioning. The time has surely come to give the civil service a distinct role and issue public warnings to ministers of the need for key decisions and submit the own programme to ministers. It sounds dull and it is, mercifully. But a strong cabinet secretary on the old Ken Bloomfield or Douglas Harkness model or the Clerk to the Canadian Privy Council might help end the paralysis – or at least set an agenda for long overdue action. . Of course if there is no good faith there can be no co-ordination. But at least an initiative along these lines would put the good faith of all parties to the test.

  • “a nightmare for the civil service”

    Brian, perhaps Slugger bloggers would need to take a closer look at the civil service before making any recommendations …

  • Driftwood

    Ah yes those poor civil servants..


    The stress, the anxiety etc

  • Only Asking

    Excellent post. I agree with Nevin and there may also be the added problem that if things are at a snails pace now, this extra layer of beaureaucy could slow things down even more. I have no hope of things getting any better at Stormont, but this is truly an excellent idea.

  • Jo

    Yet more reflexive, conditioned responses knocking ciivl servants in response to a thoughtful and positive article. At least you’re thinking Brian.

  • igor

    I have a suggestion. If Stormont folds we need a new model. We know that local Government has worked (after a fashion) so time for plan B.

    Lets try the NI County Council model with one council for the whole place. We only have a population of 1.6 million so its just about the right size.

    We could have a community dept, a health and social services department, an economic department and a roads and transport department each with a professional chief executive accountable to a Council Sub Committee.

    About 40 councillors would be enough then we could then sack over 100 MLAs and all those local politicians that infest our Council chambers and all the unnecessary layers of civil servants that ‘support’ them

  • Civil Servant

    More civil servants (glorified unempoyment benefit spongers)is not the solution to anything. They’re the reason so few people in NI are employed in anything meaningful or productive.
    See also Invest NI, a complete joke.

    Think again Brian old boy.

  • Brian Walker

    The gloriously individualist strain of blogger we often get in Slugger believes it knows better than experts for an absolute fact. This is sometimes true but often not. Senior civil servants are usually quite clever and more importantly, have access to information. There are professional constraints in what they do and BTW, I’m not arguing for more of them, just for an increase in their right of initiative, as happens in some other countries. To the savage critics I would ask as usual: have you any better ideas?

  • ulsterfan

    I have long held the view that Civil Servants exercise more power in running the country than politicians.
    Long may this continue.
    They are generally motivated to do what is right for the wider community and not driven by some political ideology always seeking to gain short term advantage for a political party .

  • Driftwood

    Brian Walker states that senior civil servants are really clever and should be allowed to exercise their initiative. So why the need for all the bloody consultants then? As for alternatives to our non-working administration, why not outsource it? To, say, Westminster. Set up a select committee on NI affairs. Then have a Northern Ireland office to run things here, with a Secretary of state and a couple of junior ministers.

    It would save a lot of money and get things done. We could call it Direct Rule or something like that. But maybe that would be too sensible.

  • “Senior civil servants are usually quite clever and more importantly, have access to information.”

    Brian, Peter Robinson told me that one of his problems was getting information out of civil servants and an MLA from a different party made much the same point to me a week ago in Ballycastle.

    Being clever is one thing; having the relevant expertise is another. Hence the need for Slugger bloggers to take an in-depth look at the civil service, including its relationships with Ministers and MLAs.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Senior Civil Serpents tend to be accountants, which
    makes them experts in the use of a calculator..

    Professor Neil Kay has a lovely piece on his blog regarding the justification of closing down schools and um public toilets.
    http://www.brocher.com/Extras/Spare Capacity and Public Policy.htm

    “Moral …

    Spare capacity is a fact of economic and social life, from waiting rooms to public toiliets, football grounds to pubs, trains to schools. The reasons for spare capacity may vary, some might be deliberate because of variable or peak demand, but in many cases it simply represents sunk costs which every good economics student knows should be ignored. Whether or not or not you should do anything about spare capacity depends on such considerations as the marginal costs of maintaining this spare capacity (eg any heating, lighting, repairs, maintenance costs), and the value of whatever alternative best use (if any) you could put this capacity to (in economic terms, its opportunity cost). Spare capacity is not necessarily wasteful in economic terms, a happy thought for those who want to encourage competition in ferry services Gourock-Dunoon and fight schools closure programmes across Scotland. Economics may be the dismal science, but it is not as dismal as some accountancy-based approaches to these issues.

    Footnote …

    After I wrote up the “How to Close a Public Toilet” above as a riduculous example, I came across a wonderful study on the Web. Someone had actually done this! The report notes

    The 12 selected toilets were surveyed over three observation periods (8:30-
    10:30am, 11am-1pm and 2-4pm), between the periods 17 December 2003
    and 14 January 2004. The full results of the survey can be found in the Public
    Toilet Review 2004…”

    (How did they survey these toilets? Was there someone with a clipboard standing inside? Hiding in the bushes?)

    The report also notes

    “The steady rise in population, combined with the current use of the toilets,
    does not currently point to the capacity of the conveniences being exceeded
    and customer demand was not being met. Future demand is therefore not
    anticipated to rise significantly.”

    It looks good, it’s got the right words, but when you try to make sense of it, it comes out as a load of … well, this is getting too scatological. I read the above several times, I am sorry, I don’t understand it. It’s probably me, I clearly don’t know enough about public toilets to speak with authority on this issue.

    In fairness, this local authority did seem to be very progressive and has introduced high tech modular toilets (whatever these are). It’s just that they seem to be spending too much time hanging around public toilets in the company of accountants for their own good”

  • Pigeon Toes

    “To the savage critics I would ask as usual: have you any better ideas”

    Er How about employing people with expertise in a given field?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “It would save a lot of money and get things done. We could call it Direct Rule or something like that”

    I hear that contingency plans for this are already in the pipeline.

  • Driftwood

    I suspect we are in for a period of ‘direct rule lite’. At least until the general election. The talking shop at Trumpton will continue (including expenses)-Gravy trains don’t like to be stationary- and then it’s anyones guess. MacBeth in my opinion:

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Does Stormont have a Castle?

  • Local Government

    I’m getting tired of this knocking of the public sector.I work in local government which is not the same as the civil service by a long shot despite what some of you may think. Might get fired for this but throwing it open to anyone interested under a certain mantle of secrecy, of course.

    Anyone able to take a morning’s leave and come and see what one arm of the public sector does and then write honestly about what you find out? It’s not Dragon’s Den but then it isn’t Playschool either.

    Happy to oblige but I expect that the majority in here would rather issue the standard public sector kicking. The email below is where you can reach me.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “I suspect we are in for a period of ‘direct rule lite’”

    Isn’t what we have already?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Anyone able to take a morning’s leave”

    Would that be from Belfast?

  • Civil servant

    No, not all public sector workers have the easy ride that is the NICS- massive salaries, 6 weeks sick leave on top of ten weeks faked ‘flexi’ and then another 8 weeks holiday.
    But it is unemployment benefit at £35k plus for dandering in at lunchtime, coffee break, maybe a ‘meeting’ and home by 4pm. Obviously public sector workers outside the NICS, PSNI, Prison service and other joke jobs do have real work to do. And I bet they wish they were part of the groups just mentioned.

  • patriot game

    16.“I suspect we are in for a period of ‘direct rule lite’”

    Isn’t what we have already?


    But should the talking shop at Stormont be filling their boots with walnut desks, plasma TV’s, Sky subscriptions etc when they have no power to legislate? maybe so. That’s the price of stalemate. Spending cuts are coming. remember what/who you voted for.
    No-one is innocent, but some are more guilty than others.

  • “come and see what one arm of the public sector does”

    I’ve already been, LG, but I’ve not yet published an opinion. I understand the Chief Executive is a regular reader of NALIL blog 🙂

  • Jo

    Much is made of the money paid to consultants. There is in fact a very rigorous selection process involved, the starting point of which is ascertaining that what is required does not already exist in the civil service.

    One example is changing Water Service into a government owned company. Although civil servants are flexible – unsurprisingly, there was no-one who had experience of this sort of project, the technical legal and financial advice required needed to be bought in.

    So much of what politicians want to happen needs advice which is simply not “on call” within existing staff resources. But it does exist – out there in the market – so if you want something, you can get it, but, as with so much, you need to pay the going rate. Simple as.

    So perhaps that might shake out some of the conditioned reflexive thinking that public sector work equates to waste. But I’m not optimistic!

  • Pigeon Toes

    “So perhaps that might shake out some of the conditioned reflexive thinking that public sector work equates to waste. But I’m not optimistic!”

    You would be right not to be optimistic.

    ” There is in fact a very rigorous selection process involved,”

    That’s just hilarious…

    Are consultant contracts not put out to tender normally?

  • Big Bopper

    Nice try Jo, but no cigar.
    Anyone who has ever been employed in the civil service joined because they knew it was an easy life. Loads of annual ‘sick’ leave, free pension, reading the papers, sending email ‘funnies’, endless tea breaks. And everyone knows this.

  • Jo

    All NICS consultancy assignments are tendered.

  • Jo, what do you make of the Small Ferries Project team? Some civil servants with limited expertise but not a ferry operator in sight, apparently. Check bottom of this blog.

  • “All NICS consultancy assignments are tendered”

    Jo, are the Tender Evaluation Panels independent of those who are in communication with the tenderers? I’d have thought that this would be an essential requirement to minimise the possibility of sleaze yet it doesn’t appear to be standard practice.

  • Pigeon Toes

    ““All NICS consultancy assignments are tendered”

    That kinda blows your earlier statement out of the water

    “There is in fact a very rigorous selection process”

    (Or is it Civil Service double speak)

  • Pigeon Toes

    Jo, You wouldn’t happen to be at “work” at this moment in time?

  • Jo

    Nevin, yes.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Jo would that be true for all tenders, or just consultancy procurement?

  • Jo

    As far as I know all procurements involve a panel consisting of a user representative, a finance manager and someone independent.

  • Pigeon Toes


    Thanks for that.