Leading article

Civil service needs a leader to deliver change

If ever there was a time when we needed a highly efficient, effective and well organised public sector to tackle matters of profound consequence, then it is now.

Civil servants perform an essential role on behalf of the public, ensuring the delivery of vital services that impact on all aspects of life.

That role has taken on an added importance as we deal with not only the coronavirus pandemic but also the fast approaching end to the Brexit transition period which is still mired in uncertainty.

These are challenges that would test the most skilled, professional and well-resourced organisation but according to an audit office report the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) is ''struggling to deal with providing 'business as usual services'.''

It will be recalled that NICS underwent significant restructuring and rationalisation after almost 4,000 staff departed between 2015 and 2019, mainly as the result of a voluntary exit scheme.

Meanwhile, agency costs have soared as the organisation increasingly relies on temporary staff to keep existing services going, with more than 1,400 staff vacancies identified.

Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said the civil service must transform how it plans, recruits and manages its workforce, ensuring it has the 'right people, in the right place, at the right time.'

Of course, achieving the sort of radical change that is needed requires leadership and unfortunately the NICS is currently without a leader since the retirement of civil service head David Sterling in August, eight months after he had signalled his intentions.

A recruitment process was carried out in September but none of the three shortlisted candidates was selected. Early last month Michelle O'Neill told an assembly committee that an interim head was actively being sought.

It is plainly unacceptable for an organisation so vast, complex and crucial to the provision of public services to be without a leader, particularly during this period of immense disruption to everyday life.

The audit office report has shown there are many issues - some quite fundamental - that need to be tackled and that will require someone in post who can set out a strategy for the future.

It is regrettable that such a key position remains vacant at a time when clear direction and leadership is urgently needed.

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Leading article