RHI: some lessons for the civil service

20 Mar 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Mar 2020

Image: Pixabay

When the final RHI report was published last Friday it was immediately shoved out of the headlines by the escalating coronavirus crisis.

What coverage it did garner centred more on what it did not rather  than what it did conclude. This is a pity because this lucid report is of great importance to all who care about the business of government and how it should be improved.

The report is divided into three sections. This analysis concerns the first of them. What is most striking is just how clear and obvious many of the blunders were – even with the benefit of hindsight.

Here are just some of the things that need to change

Experts are important and the Civil Service needs to recognise that and recruit more of them.

 None of the key staff working on RHI were energy experts. They were effectively learning about a complex and highly technical area on the job. The civil service traditionally relies on generalists with the assumption that they can work pretty much anywhere in the system, steadily moving up in grade. Whilst this might work in some areas, the RHI report clearly demonstrates that it did not in DETI’s Energy Division.

People managing complex projects need to have appropriate experience and training

The report finds that: “A significant problem that became apparent to the Inquiry during the course of its work was the almost wholesale changeover of relevant staff in DETI from late 2013 and the first half of 2014 and the potential effect that had on the management of the RHI.”

These new officials had very little if any relevant experience. Per the report: “For example, Mr Wightman’s experience was limited to capital schemes which had an identifiable beginning and end; he had never been involved in running a “live” scheme

“Mr Hughes was completely unfamiliar with energy policy and renewable heat and he had no previous experience of an incentive driven scheme. Mr Mills had no experience of energy issues and did not receive any formal training in ‘renewables’ or any other aspects of the wide spectrum of Energy Division projects.”

The report concluded: “A fundamental shift is needed in the approach used within the Northern Ireland Civil Service with regard to recruitment and selection for government jobs. This must involve an up-front assessment of the skills that are required to fulfil the specific role in question, rather than matching a person to a role according to an individual’s grade and level of pay. In time the Inquiry believes this should lead towards more job-specific recruitment and selection which must, of course, be fair, transparent and consistent with relevant employment legislation.”

Another, obvious conclusion follows.

Wholesale staff changes in the middle of developing a complex, high risk project is to be avoided.

When the new staff took over the scheme there appears not to have been a formal handover between senior officials. The new head of the Energy Division was given an 80 page induction pack on taking office. However the report states: “the only references to RHI were limited to pages 76 to 77 … It contained no mention of the unusual nature of the funding, the need for early review in January 2014, the need for continuing careful monitoring, the review of the scheme and tariffs, the communication from (whistle-blower) Janette O’Hagan, the time-limit of the budget, the need to reapply for DFP approval in March 2015, or the need to consider budget control/degression.”

The report also states: “the only handover document containing any real detail that the Inquiry has been able to identify was that written by Mr Hutchinson in May 2014. Mr Mills did not recall having read Mr Hutchinson’s handover note, although it was produced at his request.”

That’s not to say relevant documents did not exist – they would be stored on the civil service’s Electronic Documents and Records Management system, called TRIM. Yet the report quotes the Dr Andrew McCormick DEL’s permanent secretary saying he was “ “not a big TRIM user” and avoided the system if it were possible. He said the system was difficult to use if the user does not know that the materials sought existed.”

All projects undertaken need adequate resources.

Witness statements to the inquiry talked of a “can do” attitude within DEL. Whilst this is commendable it’s not enough of its own.

At the time the scheme was instigated the civil service as a whole was under immense pressure particularly around staffing. Clearly this affected available resource.

Per the report: “The renewable heat team, such as it was, included the grade 7, Alison Clydesdale, who also worked on seven or eight other policy areas. Her job thus required frequent prioritisation of work, sometimes on a daily basis. Ms Clydesdale was replaced in May 2011 by Joanne McCutcheon. Whereas Ms Clydesdale worked 28-32 hours per week, Ms McCutcheon worked 24 hours a week during term time only.

The GB RHI scheme, by December 2013, was resourced by 77 people including three senior civil servants and six grade 6 policy officials, albeit this was to support a scheme covering England, Wales and Scotland. 4.11 However, in Northern Ireland lack of adequate resources proved to be a perennial problem adversely affecting the optimal development and management of the RHI scheme.”

The level of available resources was raised as a risk and this leads to another problem. The initial risk register was never updated.

Many organisations use risk registers. Typically they follow a traffic light system, are regularly updated and discussed as an essential element in managing both projects and entire organisations.

The report states: “The risks of the scheme, although well identified initially, were never managed systematically. The initial scheme Risk Register was not updated or used effectively as a tool to manage and reduce risk. While risks may have been discussed informally at team meetings, no record of such discussions was kept and the Inquiry saw no evidence that the RHI scheme Risk Register was ever formally amended or updated, not even when risks began to materialise.”

This brings us to another serious problem.

All projects need rigorous project planning

In GB the RHI scheme was managed through PRINCE (Projects in Controlled Environments).

The report summarises project management as follows: “All good project methods contain at their core some fundamental elements. A suitably qualified team should be assembled; project objectives defined and a budget established. There should be a bespoke project plan, with mechanisms to ensure that the plan may be adjusted and/or refined to take account of and manage relevant contextual changes over time. Also essential is a clear and easily accessible system for the collection and storage of records and information. An appropriate formal structure would establish a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) at Senior Civil Service level, a Project Board, a Project Manager, a Project Team, a Risk Register (to be updated as necessary), an Issues Log and a Benefits Realisation Plan.”

However the inquiry found: “Ms Hepper told the Inquiry that, during her time as Director of Energy, she did not consider the application of a formal project management structure to the RHI scheme was practicable in the context of the number of other projects that also required attention and the limited resources available.”

Instead the team was “getting on with it”, presumably in a can-do spirit.

This absence of project planning was critical.

The report concludes: “The absence of project management also had profound consequences for the progress of the RHI scheme. Had there been a programme plan and a progress log, together with a live risk register and issues logs, the relevant Energy Branch staff would have had an ongoing indication of steps that were required to be taken and the scheme could have been managed as circumstances changed. This was a new ‘flagship project’, subject to volatile and unpredictable degrees of uptake that required careful, continuing review and management of risk.”

None of this is rocket science.

The purpose of the RHI inquiry was to “restore public confidence in the workings of Government.”

It is hardly likely to do that, based on its findings. However it does provide clear evidence of what went wrong and how a similar catastrophe might be avoided in the future.

The task of monitoring implementation of the report falls to the  Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland Kieran Donnelly whose coruscating report into the scheme was published in 2016.


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