NI Water: Why open government is more than a slogan for the chattering classes

There’s a very sharply observed piece by Denis Bradley in today’s Irish News, which aside from lauding the work of John Dallat and others on the PAC, an intelligent whistle-blower and some fine words about Slugger, he also let’s slip a few fundamental truths about where the blame lies. And it is not with the politicians:

“…it has caught the two governing parties on the hop. They didn’t see it coming. But anyone who has spent a few nights in the company of northern businessmen will have been anything but surprised. The more outspoken businessmen are saying that the real dirt is still to come. These are the businesses who don’t feel they are in the inner circle.”

He goes on to give Sinn Fein a dunt for not employing individuals outside their own trusted circles who could independently scrutinise the work of the departments under their care. That’s an argument that may have some merit, but only so far as it goes.

But… the Minister for Regional Development, every bit as much as any of his Executive colleagues in other parties, is dependent upon and responsible to the ‘permanent government’ (the career senior civil servants who govern the machine on the inside) for most of the information he is expected to officially disseminates to the wider public.

If someone (or even many people) screw up inside that ‘neutral’ machine then the system dictates it is the Minister who bears the brunt of public anger, and not necessarily the people actually responsible for making the mistake(s) in the first place.

The scale and complexity of the evidence that’s been under consideration here on Slugger for the last two months highlights how unreasonable it is for politicians to continue to take the rap when their highly-paid civil servants breach the trust placed in them to do their job in a selfless way.

The terms of reference chosen for the investigation of Paul Priestly probably reflect the shock being felt within the civil service, as much any attempt to unfairly limit further damage.  But it says much about the unaccountability of the government machine that this is only the second such suspension in the whole 150 year history of the British Civil Service.

Certainly in the case of NI Water, some of the most senior guardians of the state appear not to understand the complex mathematics of procurement (of which a great deal more anon) and the fine granular detail of what’s involved in contracting private specialists.

And this is before we even get to the almost designed to be unmanageable PPP deals that litter government across these islands.

But back to Bradley, who finishes by getting to the nub of one of the more significant underlying problems in the NI Water:

…this place has been through a lot, and the Brits, the Irish and the EU have and are throwing a lot of money at the problem. How that money is distributed and who gets the contracts to carry out the commissioned work needs to be clear, open and available to everyone – irrespective of who they are or who they know.

The PAC already has something 3000 pieces of paper to get through, furnished from inside various government departments. It will further review evidence from Declan Gormley and Chris Mellor, along with copious documents and information drawn out by FOI from some of the more active members of the committee.

You can be sure that some very stringent questions will be asked at their next open session.

At last at least one of the safeguarding institutions of Stormont has begun to wake to its own responsibilities. In doing so, they must not get distracted by petty party politics, but keep their collective eye firmly and resolutely on the civil service ball, and resist to the end the urge to begin cannibalising one another.

One swallow does not make a summer. Our fledging democrats will have a long way to go after this saga completes itself. But at least some of them have begun to realise they as elected politicians have legislative teeth with which to bite back.

They don’t just have to take it any more.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty