Felicity Huston: “The Civil Service struggles with the idea of independence”

The Detail has three reports based on an interview with the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland, Felicity Huston, who is stepping down next month after 6 years in the role.  Mrs Huston reveals that, despite her repeated requests, she has not met the Head of the NI Civil Service, Sir Bruce Robinson, in an official capacity since his appointment 3 years ago.

From The Detail’s main report

Mrs Huston later said there had been incredulity within the Civil Service with the queries in the press and wider society about independence such as the NI Water affair.

“I genuinely think the Civil Service couldn’t see what the problem was and I think it reflects further into things in my post, they don’t understand what the difficulty is and why does it matter if your staff are civil servants? I used to have an email address and website that was just an extension of OFM/DFM. They genuinely don’t get it.”

She also queried the OFMDFM’s handling of the appointment of her successor, revealing that she was not consulted about the recruitment of her successor.

“I have had absolutely no contact whatsoever; I got a letter to tell me that they would be advertising the post so at least that was something. But no, contact at all. For a public body that I would have regulation of I would recommend that they would speak to the outgoing chair of a body, or the current chair before they draw up a job specification for a post for a public appointment so that they understand what the post requires.”

Mrs Huston has worked for two days a week as the Public Appointments Commissioner; however the decision has been made by OFMDFM, without any consultation, to reduce the role to one day and a half.

She said: “I don’t know how those conclusions have been reached, so really the best of luck to whoever takes it on because the job has been drawn up without any discussion from the current job holder which is a peculiar way to get on.”

The other Detail reports are here, and finally here.  

In February this year the Commissioner had several comments to make about appointments to the interim NI Water Board

Ms Huston told BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme her office had found an “enormous number of gaps” in the process of appointing replacements.

“We couldn’t find out how people had ended up being interviewed,” she said.

“There were missing records about submissions to ministers where advice is given to a minister on how we might proceed.

“I have to say that I have investigated other public appointment competitions in DRD and been very dissatisfied with them.

“The permanent secretary (Paul Priestly) and I had some full and frank exchange of views about how he was running his appointments.”

And the BBC have also reported the Commissioner’s comments on Talkback today.

Mrs Huston steps down from the role at the end of the month after six years.

She said there were difficulties asserting her role as a regulator at Stormont.

“People recruit people who look like them, sound like them and have the same life and work experiences,” she said.

The commissioner said there were other issues about the independence of her position.

“The International Ombudsman’s Organisation wouldn’t recognise my office by their standards as independent as I don’t have proper control of my budget, I don’t have my own staff and I am subject to the same cuts as other civil servant departments.” [added emphasis]

As Mrs Huston told The Detail

She said: “I don’t know how those conclusions have been reached, so really the best of luck to whoever takes it on because the job has been drawn up without any discussion from the current job holder which is a peculiar way to get on.” [added emphasis]