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]

, , , , , , , ,

  • Cynic2

    I think she is being kind to them. They want to place their own in posts so they don’t have any ‘bother’ from meddlesome questions

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

    It’s equally possible that the Minister’s office was running these appointments, that the PS and his officials were merely cogs in the wheel. The insertion of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir as an additional interim NIW NED at the last minute would suggest that the PS did not have full control of events.

    The following claim by Lian Patterson at the PAC meeting on 1 July 2010 about the OCPANI role went unchallenged as far as I can see at the time by OCPANI and MLAs:

    “The appointments process was used to identify those four skills. People who fit into each of those skill sets were interviewed by a panel comprising the permanent secretary, myself, and an independent assessor from the office of Felicity Huston, the Commissioner for Public Appointments.”

    I queried this statement on 29 Sept 2010 and received an email response from OCPANI the same day:

    “CPANI did not nominate, select or assent to the assessor used by the Department as it is currently the departments responsibility to provide independent participation.”

    According to the OCPANI Annual Report 2009/10 the contracts of its accessors came to an end in September 2009 and the Commissioner decided to make no further appointments until a scheme could be agreed with the OFMDFM whereby such accessors would be fully under the control of OCPANI. She might still be waiting for a response from the FM and dFM 🙂

  • Being unable to get a formal meeting with the Head of the Civil Service in three years suggests that not everyone is taking Ms Huston seriously.
    Bringing this up just a few months from her stepping down as Appointments Commissioner seems too little too late.
    Whether she has more to tell us will be interesting.
    And her post-Commissioner career equally so.

  • Crubeen

    The Civil Service has a problem with competence and anybody who tries to point out that it is incompetent. Thankfully it is not so incompetent as to be unable to recognise its incompetence – how else can one explain that Ms Huston is still waiting for three years for an appointment.

    Those who point out the incompetence of the Civil Service wind up like Nuala O’Loan … a token peerage but no sinecures or quangos that they can call their own.

  • “The following claim by Lian Patterson at the PAC meeting on 1 July 2010 about the OCPANI role went unchallenged as far as I can see at the time by OCPANI and MLAs” .. Nevin 5 July 10.38 am

    CORRECTION

    Felicity kindly sent me a correction on 6 July @ 11.01 am in the form of a correction of the Lian Patterson claim that she’d sent to PAC Chairman Paul Maskey on 21 July 2010. The letter to Maskey didn’t appear as a press release on the OCPANI website but was one of a series of documents released in September 2010 following an FoI request.

    Why did Slugger/I get a more expeditious response than the PAC chairman? I’d like to congratulate Felicity and her colleagues for speedy, informative and courteous replies to my queries.

    Why has the Patterson claim in the 1 July 2010 PAC report not (yet) had a correction note attached?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Why did Slugger/I get a more expeditious response than the PAC chairman? ”

    Just a thought, but possibly due to a phenomenon known as “holiday”?

  • “she’d sent to PAC Chairman Paul Maskey on 21 July 2010.”

    OOPs. Not my day 🙁 The correspondence was addressed to the other Paul, Paul Priestley.