Today the NI Audit Office published a report on Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. This report will also be the subject of the Public Accounts Committee hearing on 3 December 2020.

There are a significant number of issues raised in the NIAO report which will be the subject of consultation and negotiation with NIPSA via the Central Whitley Structures over the coming months.

NIPSA has challenged a number of the assertions made in the report and in the media including the fact that the report does not fully recognise a significant number of challenges that the NICS has faced over the last 4 years. Some of these issues are the restructuring of 11 Departments to 9; 3,500 staff leaving the service over a 12-18-month period with the cheapest let go first – this meant the loss of over a hundred thousand years of skills, experience, institutional knowledge and expertise over a very short period of time. No wonder then that this left skills gaps and the use of agency workers rose exponentially over the intervening period.

For over 3 years the NI Assembly was absent – yet civil servants kept the country running and continued to deliver many vital public services. Also, since the decision to leave the European Union, civil servants have worked tirelessly to deal with the thousands of issues that need to be considered – they have done this with ever changing landscape, no certainty and yet we are only 43 days from the end of the transition period and again politicians are not dealing with these key issues and giving certainty.

In this unprecedented year of a global pandemic civil servants have either moved to work from home, irrespective of whether it suited them, or have gone into the workplace to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society can receive benefits as thousands of workers Protecting Public Services … Supporting Public Servants lose their jobs or grants to support business. Civil Servants have done what they always do – they have risen to the challenge and have done so without question.

NIPSA is very concerned that our senior politicians have failed to appoint a Head of the Civil Service at this very critical time and have even failed to appoint an Interim Head. This is a failure of leadership at political level. It is imperative that the NICS has a leader to lead the NICS through the next number of years, to deal with the immediate and longer term challenges.

In addition, it is very concerning that again Ministers have intervened in the recruitment processes of 2 Permanent Secretaries and have paused them mid-stream. The rationale given to date is that under the New Decade, New Approach gives authority for reform of the NICS. NIPSA is not afraid of reform but it must be done in a measured manner which requires consultation and negotiation with Trade Union Side. The pause in the current processes are unacceptable and effectively leaves two departments without a permanent secretary.

While there is criticism of the number of vacancies across the NICS, NIPSA is also concerned about these significant vacancies which have led to an unprecedented number of trawls across the system which are unnecessary and time consuming. NIPSA has been instrumental in pressing for recruitment exercises to be restarted since the lock down on 23 March. A volume AO competition is now placing up to 500 staff over the coming weeks and months, 100 new permanent work coaches are being appointed with an additional 350 fix term posts also being recruited. In addition at middle management levels posts at SO and DP levels are currently in progress of being filled which should mean that the vast majority of current and future vacancies at these levels can be filled before the end of this financial year.

NIPSA is continuing to press to keep the recruitment of permanent staff moving so that people can be in permanent posts, which should help to settle down the system. However we accept these are significant challenges for our members in NICSHR and across the system.

NIPSA will continue to meet with the Management Side to address the issues identified in this report.

Alison Millar
General Secretary