Northern Ireland news

Civil servants' union criticises appointments process

David Sterling has now retired as head of the civil service.

THE head of a civil servants' union has criticised the method of appointing senior public officials which allows The Executive Office to have the final say.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association (FDA) which represents the majority of senior civil servants, said there is a "dysfunctionality of a process that allows elected ministers to put party politics over public interest".

Under a change to the rules about a decade ago, the first and deputy first ministers are final interviewers of senior candidates.

Writing in The News Letter, Mr Penman said civil servants need to have the independence and confidence "to provide ministers with the advice they need, which is not always the advice they want".

"Whether it's implementing a new idea for improving educational standards or indeed responding to a public health emergency, civil servants will marshal advice from experts, look at costs and outcomes, and then give ministers options.

"We take a lot of this for granted but it's why we have an impartial, permanent civil service.

"This is no accident, it means that civil servants are appointed for what they can do, not what they believe.

"A civil servant has a professional obligation to provide the best objective advice to ministers, then once a decision has been taken, to act on it, regardless of their own political views.

"It gives civil servants the confidence to provide ministers with the advice they need, which is not always the advice they want.

"The separation of the powers from ministers to hire and fire is hard wired in to our system, as it makes for better government."

Mr Penman also criticised the delay in advertising and appointing a replacement for the outgoing head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, despite having nine months notice of his intention to retire.

"Ministers prevaricated before a national recruitment exercise was launched, overseen by the independent Civil Service Commission," he said.

"This produced three final candidates, all of whom they considered appointable.

"The first and deputy first ministers were to interview and choose from this shortlist, a process they introduced for the first time a decade ago.

"The delay was bad enough, as it left no opportunity for a handover, but to completely fail to appoint a replacement is simply an abdication of responsibility.

"I recognise that Northern Ireland has a unique political history and that the creation of power-sharing in Stormont reflects that.

"This, however, is about effective government. Of course the first minister and deputy first minister should have confidence in whoever is selected to lead the NICS.

"The people of Northern Ireland deserve better and that requires a strong, permanent, professional and impartial civil service."

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