DSD’s using sticking plaster when a comprehensive housing review is what’s needed?

From a systemic point of view, the most worrying aspect of the Northern Ireland Water story (in all its often obscure complexity) was the unfit-for-purpose nature of internal (and external) reporting around government processes. In yesterday’s subscription only Irish News Newton Emerson offers a fascinating and important insight into ‘how things are done’ in Northern Ireland politics government yesterday.

The picture he gets reading from the back of the Inquiry report on Helm housing’s disastrous venture into property speculation is very different from that given at the front, or indeed the Minister’s statement. Newton notes that ‘No real acceptation of the seriousness of the issues” in the back end moves to “openness and integrity throughout the process” in the minister’s statement.

Ah, process. That word has a certain familiar ring to it in Northern Ireland..

The Minister’s response was to put two extra inspectors into the regulatory framework to mend what appears to be an issue primarily of competence: ie, adding even more red tape, tamping down innovation even further in the sector.

Emerson offers one reason why the ministerial response was so limited in scope: everybody was at property speculation and no one in government has any particular appetite for tackling the problems associated with it in any terms that might bring improvement in dealing with the social need the likes of Helm are supposed to address.

Although the property bubble was one of the most significant economic episodes in Northern Ireland’s history, it is now ignored in the manner of Princess Diana’s funeral, as if everyone is mortified by what public fools they made of themselves during the made of themselves during the mass hysteria.

Coincidentally, Matthew Taylor, the CEO of the RSA, blogged on a tangentially related theme a few days when quoting Roger Scruton’s latest tome, Green Philosophy:

Roger Scruton – whose new book ‘Green Philosophy’ helped me name this distinction – says of NGO’s that ‘they often exist purely for the sake of their goals’ and, he alleges, they are ‘unable to discuss the validity of their goals since they are defined by them’.

Whatever the nature of the problems in housing provision, and it has to be said the local administration is certainly exposing more knotty problems than most departments, a revision of the purpose of public funded housing, its role within the wider economy, and the validity of current goals is long overdue.  Sticking plasters will not make the thing go away.

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  • cynic2


    Would that some of our NI Departments were just defined by their goals. Fixing them might then be easier. Instead they exist to exist – and in some cases to provide space for a Ministerial post to help the politics.

    I fear we have two fundamental issues here.

    First there is too cosy a relationship between the Civil Service and the Ministers. Many ministers have L plates up. Some are not at all competent and fearful of their briefs. This gives the Civil Service Carte Blanche to obfuscate and hide failure. The fractured nature of the Executive also enables the Civil Service to manipulate even more behind the scenes by grassing a Minister up to OFMDFM.

    Second, none of that might matter if we had a strong and competent Civil Service. We don’t. NICS is insular, withdrawn and ten years behind its not very good counterpart in England. The middle and top tiers are predominantly male and white. The lower tiers are female. All the promotions are from within lest the boat be rocked or the lodge discomforted.

    The NI Senior Civil Service seems to have a bulk discount arrangement on grey suits.The whole focus is on departmental empire building and back covering. Innovation or change is regarded with suspicion and the customers are there to be done to or delivered to, not listened to. They also speak their own language of buzzwords and KPIs largely unknown to the rest of humanity. Many of them went to school together and then on to Queens.

    This has all the characteristics of a Priesthood. Until our Ministers learn how to be the Gods of the Priesthood, hand down the Gospels and force through long needed reform we are stuck with this slowly decaying, expensive, incompetent mess. Given the nature of the Executive and recent evidence, I wont hold my breath.

  • This has all the characteristics of a Priesthood. Until our Ministers learn how to be the Gods of the Priesthood, hand down the Gospels and force through long needed reform we are stuck with this slowly decaying, expensive, incompetent mess. Given the nature of the Executive and recent evidence, I wont hold my breath.

    Delivered by a resident stranger are the levers well servered whilst competencies are assured and beta tested to required universal future standards and random virtual robot configuration.

    Are Stormont ready for Virtual Remote Governance with 99% Input to Output?

  • aquifer

    Maybe the model of recruiting civil servants young and already cynical from seeking security is broken. The real and commercial worlds are full of technical risks that must be understood before they are managed.

    Salaried civil servants were an improvement on aristocrats or corrupt crony placemen, but maybe now we need people who can manage well and be open about what they are doing, and maybe people who must walk if they screw up.

    Putting all the paperwork online would be a great discipline, as half the time civil servants seem to break their own rules.

    Maybe we can then agree that half the rules are stupid, or that we need civil servants who were working smart before deciding to serve the public.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m in favour of civil service reform. But there’s a more immediate issue here, which is how does a minister promote innovative policy that addresses current needs. In this case in the realm of housing.

    I think Newt is on to one reason, a sense that our politicians where at least complicit in the same hysteria may be preventing them from acting more boldly and with some vision.

  • cynic2


    That is a factor but I think the whole system (like health) is so riddled with vested interests and carefully crafted civil service polices (designed to avoid blame bot build homes) that, without changing the system, the Minister will just be hamstrung and held up until another political bum lands on the seat and starts again.

    I was actually sorry to see Attwood leave DSD as for all is faults he’s a pushy we bugger who might have been successful

    As a footnote, for all these reasons the SDLP’s policy on Ministerial Rotation (or Avoiding Internal Rivalries) is a shambles that will leave them all ineffective. Plus ca change!