The civil service must share the blame with the politicians for our faltering administration

Newton Emerson has written a thoughtful piece on that neglected topic, now  blindingly exposed by the RHI inquiry,  of how Northern Ireland is administered. He had already decided that the region is too small to sustain a comprehensive health service.

The inquiry’s verdict on specific blame could be years away. In the meantime, the first overarching theme to emerge has been something of a surprise – namely, that Northern Ireland is too small to have a separate administrative existence.

A key motivation when adapting policies, as explained by inquiry witnesses, is a cargo cult-like focus on getting more money into Northern Ireland no matter how wasteful this is overall. In one instance, officials knowingly cost the British taxpayer £300 million to save Stormont £3.5 million because that was rational from their standalone perspective.

Suddenly, the jaw-dropping mistakes of RHI look like an inevitable feature of how Northern Ireland is run.

As the constitutional question cancels out and cutting services down to an efficient size is unthinkable, there is a chance for the RHI inquiry to provoke more practical ideas.

A sustainable administration in Northern Ireland would need to do less on its own, while looking to east-west and north-south partnerships for delivery.

And yet… in the bad old days of monopoly unionism, Northern Ireland adopted the step by step approach to introducing the welfare state – the NHS, expanding  income support and  universal secondary education –  by adapting  the GB precedents.  The flaws were political rather than essentially administrative. A welfare state can only be based on universal principles which were bound to clash with  institutional discrimination. UK civil servants often came over on secondment to head up NI departments or take up full jobs. This was not always welcome but it seemed to work.  Sue Gray’s appointment may be the latest example.  I hope she shakes the place up. We cannot  wait for the inquiry  to report . The appalling practice  of  burning off  unspent revenue on any old thing before the end of the financial year must end. 

There is a recognised  problem of what experts in government call “capacity” as a result of expanding UK devolution  but it doesn’t seem unmanageable if the  devolved  governments are not at loggerheads with  Whitehall and Westminster.  Higher and higher tech and ever growing  public demand may be creating a wholly new situation but I doubt it.

The bigger problem  is surely the absence of  effective collective responsibility  at the political level and occasional warfare between rival minsters in the Executive . This is reflected in the conduct and role of civil servants even more than we might have feared. The lack of coordination is alarming.  The RHI seems to have revealed that no one was actually responsible, everyone passed the buck and  political special advisers were over dominant and  seldom if ever challenged.

I would particularly identify the lack of a strong cabinet secretary on the Whitehall  model to coordinate the working of administration and the full observance of the ministerial code. No doubt successive heads of the service will make their excuses . All the same their spinelessness in office  is as deplorable as their continued silence in retirement. I  wouldn’t expect any of them to go quite as far as Bob Kerslake  but they should say something.

Civil servants are in a odd position.  Convention says they advise and not decide but are increasingly required  to manage.   These functions can easily clash.  Whitehall is tackling this by seconding civil servants  to  acquire project management  skills in industry and recruiting outsiders on limited term contracts. As the NI civil service is separate from the UK service, the pressure on them to upskill may be less.

But the political problems of  the Executive – where even  minsters of the same party can be at loggerheads – is also fundamental.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London