Civil Service Head says there is no plan B

14 Oct 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 14 Oct 2016

Sir Malcolm McKibbin

Early this week Sir Malcolm McKibbin the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service made a rare public speaking appearance in Belfast. Scope reports. 

Northern Ireland is the happiest part of the UK, according to an Office of National Statistics survey quoted by Sir Malcolm McKibbin. Apparently we score our overall satisfaction with life at eight out of 10.

Sir Malcolm believes that this reflects the journey we have been on over the past 20 years. He now thinks that our institutions are as stable as they have been over the past nine of those years.

“It hasn’t been easy, it’s been a long journey and there have been speed bumps along the way. And it is a story of incredible leadership. Our politicians get a lot of stick, but it has been quite a transformation.”

And he said that all local people were entitled to feel proud of what had been achieved in “regenerating our society”.

However, although devolution is bedding in, he was disappointed by the impact of policies in the last mandate.

“Looking at it from our point of view we have had a sustained period of devolution since 2007.  The institutions are probably as stable now has they have been over the past nine years.  We achieved nearly 90% of commitments in last Programme for Government (PfG) but did it not have the impact on society we wanted to see.”

He explained that’s why the new PfG has adopted a new methodology, based on outcomes.

Sir Malcolm was speaking at the Outcomes & Impact Summit, organised by the National Children’s Bureau which brought together world experts to discuss the Outcomes Based Accountability technique.

For readers not familiar with the new approach a simple way of explaining this is that instead of judging success by the actions that have been taken, it will be done by looking at what impact they have on people.

For example, if you had a leaking roof you would measure success by whether or not the leak is fixed and your home is now dry, rather than how many tiles you bought, and how much you paid a contractor to nail them down. To lay people this is obvious: but it is not how governments traditionally work. And it is how Sir Malcolm and his political masters came to be able to work through most of their tasks in the last regime without making the difference they intended.

Sir Malcolm explained the strategic background to the new approach: a time of change for the civil service not witnessed since the widespread reforms that followed the collapse of Stormont in 1972.

In the past 24 months 4,500 (17% of the entire workforce) have left the service as part of a cost-cutting exercise which has wiped £150 million off the payroll.

On top of that 12 departments have been re-organised into nine: itself a massive logistical exercise that involved, to take just one statistic, assigning 24,000 new email addresses to members of staff.

The civil service faces a new political landscape with the formation of a formal opposition a raft of new Assembly members post the May elections and an increase of around 50% in female MLAs which Sir Malcolm believes has changed the atmosphere. Interestingly he believes that the formation of an opposition is a good thing.

“Culture and behaviours are going to have to change - around the exec table and in the civil service.

“This is probably made easier by having a formal opposition I do think that helps by driving government closer together. “

So what about the money. Sir Malcolm said: “If we look at the PfG the aim is to improve the well-being of all by tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth. I regard PfG as setting the direction of travel and the budget having a major influence on the speed at which we go along that journey. “

Clearly Sir Malcolm believes that budgetary constraints will not stop the PfG from being achieved, but will affect the speed at which this happens – one for the economists to ponder.

In any event, he was very firm in asserting that both parties in government were firmly committed to the new approach and that there is no plan B.

He said: “The leadership challenge is key. In times of change and ambiguity people want a real sense of purpose, they want motivation and they need clarity.”

To this end the Civil Service board is now focusing more on strategy than governance and is to invest in developing leadership qualities in its staff.

“We cannot afford to be the victims of change we need to be the agents of change. We in the civil service have to be leaner, more agile, more responsive and focus on the key impacts that make a difference.”

This will involve more partnership working with the community and voluntary sector.

Sir Malcolm stressed what he said were the core values of the civil service, in what some in the room interpreted as a side swipe at Special Political Advisors and creeping politicisation of the public service.

“We also have to ensure we behave in line with our core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. That’s what differentiates civil servants from many other types of advisors it is speaking truth unto power. We get people evidence based and impartial advice.

“We will be more outward facing and better at collaborating with others. Why? Because we simply have to. It will mean disrespecting boundaries within our own organisation and between others. Until now it has been easy for those outside government to criticise government from outside the tent so to speak. I expect more people to be in the tent. “

It’s a bold ambition.

In 2004 Lord Smith of Clifton famously described the Northern Ireland Civil Service as “bloated, unwieldly and not fit for purpose”. He argued “it is more collectivist than Stalinist Russia, more corporatist than Mussolini’s Italy and more quangoised than the Britain of two Harolds.”

Twelve years on this same body is charged with implementing a radical new approach to government which would establish it as a world leader. Watch this space.


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