Leading article

Worrying lack of urgency in recruitment of new civil service head

ONE need not revisit every jot and tittle of the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme to be reminded that politicians and their advisers were not the only figures to face criticism.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service's reputation for impartiality and competence was another major RHI casualty.

Dysfunction in the Sinn Féin and DUP administration has long been a feature at Stormont, but the inquiry showed that this had also infected the upper echelons of the civil service.

A particularly damning disclosure centred on how officials stopped taking minutes of meetings, apparently worried that subsequent Freedom of Information requests could put into the public domain details that might embarrass the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Giving evidence to the inquiry in 2018, by which stage he was head of the civil service, David Sterling said this was because the two main parties were "sensitive to criticism"; ministers insisted they had never instructed civil servants to stop taking notes.

The episode left the impression of a civil service so cowed that its instinct was essentially to protect politicians from possible criticism from voters and taxpayers.

Clearly, the relationship between the civil service and the executive was in need of rebalancing.

To date, however, neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin has articulated a comprehensive vision of how the civil service might be reformed and confidence in its impartiality restored.

Indeed, the process they have adopted around the appointment of a new head of the civil service suggests lessons have not been heeded.

For example, Mr Sterling made it known last December that he would retire at the end of August - giving ample time to arrange and complete a recruitment exercise.

Yet final interviews for the post - originally advertised in mid-July - were conducted only this week.

That in itself suggests at least a lack of urgency, amplified by the fact that none of the candidates were appointed.

It is difficult to imagine another employer, whether a corner shop or a multi-national conglomerate, approaching a key role in a similar leisurely fashion, let alone one tasked with delivering a public response to Brexit and coronavirus.

The fact that the interviews were carried out by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill will only add to the concerns of those already worried by the RHI revelations of a civil service inclined to be overly sympathetic to party political considerations.

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Leading article