By Joshua.Chambers

01 Dec 2010

The civil service in Northern Ireland has done much to build stability and political alliances, working with tensions and risks far greater than those in other parts of the UK. Its head Bruce Robinson talks to Joshua Chambers.

“Ask him about rebalancing the economy,” a former Northern Ireland secretary told me when I sought advice about interviewing Bruce Robinson (pictured above). “It’s the key challenge they have to tackle.” The current Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, agrees. He recently wrote in CSWabout the country’s economy, arguing that “the degree of over-reliance on the public sector is simply untenable in the long term”.

Yet while there is widespread agreement in the UK about the nature of the challenge facing Northern Ireland, the difficult task of reducing the size of the public sector and simultaneously boosting enterprise has passed to the devolved Assembly and its politicians. It’s testament to the progress made over the last decade that, these days, the makeup of the economy is seen as the most immediate challenge facing the country. This represents a return to politics as normal, and a vast change from the era of political and sectarian violence.

It’s easy to ponder from a distance on where the required cuts to public spending could and should be made, but up close it will prove a difficult slog; and the task has become more urgent since the spending review called for £4bn cuts to be set out in the next budget.

Political opinions vary on the role of the public sector in Northern Ireland’s economy – in particular, on the extent to which the government should limit unemployment by protecting public sector jobs. The deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, recently argued at NICS Live – a civil service conference held in Belfast by CSWpublisher Dods – that the administration must save public sector jobs. However, finance minister Sammy Wilson MP, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, told CSWat the same event that “the primary aim is that the public sector actively delivers a service. It shouldn’t be a job-promoting sector.”

This isn’t an absolute split, because the coalition parties have agreed that public sector jobs should not be cut during the difficult economic period if other savings are available. But while this broad objective has been agreed, finding specific savings will prove more difficult – and the civil service will be essential in identifying and implementing the cuts.

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Bruce Robinson, has the job of brokering agreement on a budget between parties that only recently agreed to sit down together. This must be an exhausting task – but Robinson seems sprightly, although he has decided to step down from the job next year. After our interview I wandered with him through the busy conference hall at NICS Live, and he often stopped and spoke at length with delegates; always affable, always polite. When speaking to me, he was exceptionally concise, cautious and precise, in the manner of an engineer or surveyor. He is, after all, trying to construct a stable political structure – and in this environment, he has to use the most delicate of tools.

Cementing consensus
Northern Ireland has a five-party coalition, and so reaching decisions requires deliberation, patience, and civil service support. Robinson describes his officials as “the cement in the bricks”, a pleasing metaphor with connotations of stability and strength.

In order to be the mortar, says Robinson, civil servants had to win the trust of politicians who were initially wary of their organisation – an organisation which had for years been controlled from London. “When devolution was first restored,” he explains, “politicians wanted to see that the Northern Ireland Civil Service – which had largely been serving direct rule ministers – was attuned to their requirements.”

The civil service was able to win trust partly because of longstanding personal relationships, he believes. “Northern Ireland is a comparatively small place, so many of us in government departments had met and worked with the devolved ministers in their previous role as locally elected councillors. In that sense, there was a reasonable amount of interaction, but there’s no doubt that devolution brought some pretty substantial challenges for us.” Robinson believes the civil service has now won that trust.

However, maintaining trust is another challenge – and one that requires a heightened political awareness among civil servants, even compared to their mainland counterparts. Robinson explains that it’s vital to “have sensitivity to the political spectrum, and help ministers by testing out some of the points and tabling some of the issues that you’re conscious other parties will be concerned about – all with the objective of facilitating an outcome that’s satisfactory to the minister.” Robinson’s language is studiously academic, but sometimes he does speak plainly: Northern Ireland’s civil service sometimes finds itself “hammering out a consensus or common view”.

One consensus that can’t be hammered out concerns Northern Ireland’s constitutional relationship with the UK; but the parties have put this to one side in order to deal with issues of day-to-day governance. A change of government in Westminster does, however, affect the government in Belfast. Robinson explains that the civil service seeks to gain an early understanding of what is happening in Whitehall and how this will affect Northern Ireland. This requires “good analysis and good understanding of the policy implications [of Whitehall policies],” he says; officials can then help ministers to formulate a response.

Process paradox
The most immediate challenge for Northern Ireland is responding to the outcome of the spending review. Northern Ireland ministers must now negotiate amongst themselves in order to reach decisions. As Robinson acknowledges, this is something “that we will have to work though pretty quickly”.

The problem for Northern Ireland is that the processes designed to reconcile the politicians’ viewpoints don’t lend themselves to speedy financial decision-making. To determine the budget, Robinson explains that Northern Ireland uses a “somewhat different process” to anywhere else in the UK. Ministers and officials are working through a subcommittee of the Executive, “looking at potential options for new revenue raising, the various ways in which the costs of government can be controlled; and over the next few weeks, the Executive will come to some conclusion”. This will then be put into a draft budget which the Executive is required to provide for consultation to the legislature.

Meanwhile, ministers negotiate with the finance ministry to determine departmental budgets. In this regard, Northern Ireland has the same system of bilateral negotiations between ministers and the minister of finance as the UK national government. “It’s an exact parallel,” Robinson says.

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service admits that these processes “take time”, but is steadfast in defending the need to follow them. “Major change is quite tough, but the fundamental processes still need to be worked through,” he says, “I don’t think you can shortcut those in any way.”

Robinson also highlights the achievements of the present systems in helping to keep government together: “It takes time but what we’ve had is an Executive that has been together now for three and a half years, which is a very significant achievement.” He adds, however, that this stability hasn’t been created by the system; merely aided by it. The coalition has survived because of the “political efforts of ministers and parties to make it work,” he stresses.

Next spring, the makeup of the Executive may change because there are elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Robinson says that a new set of ministers would place further demands on the decision-making processes – and, thus, on the civil service. “When you have a new government, there is always a desire on the part of the new government to see change and see change quickly,” he says. “I think that can, from time to time, create some mismatch of expectations, [although] it’s very natural that this occurs immediately after an election”. It may, he adds, be possible to develop civil service structures that produce outcomes more quickly; he has begun looking at faster approaches.

Future of the public sector
Once elections have determined the future of Northern Ireland’s administration, the victors will have to decide how – and how fast – to rebalance the economy. Given the political differences between the parties over the role and size of the public sector, the civil service will be instrumental in creating consensus. Does this give the civil service a vested interest in a budgetary process which it will help to shape? Robinson is understandably defensive: “I still think the prime lead in this will come from ministers,” he says.

Pushing Robinson further, I ask him directly whether the public sector can ever be too big. He responds: “I don’t see this as a challenge in those terms. I see it more as asking: what are the services that are required, what is needed at any particular point?”

So Robinson doesn’t appear to take the line that public jobs are an end in themselves. Instead,
he emphasises the need for the public sector to become better able to meet the demands made of it. It needs to be “more flexible, more open,” he says. The civil service is too focused on working in silos, and this has made it slow to react. “We weren’t in as dynamic an environment in the past,” he comments. “We had a long era of increasing budgets; we had a
long period where the focus was, quite naturally, within departments.”

This insularity can be tackled partly by investing in communications, Robinson thinks. The public sector is “a distributed model; you have a lot of people working in different parts with quite different requirements.” This means that there has to be a “real, conscious management effort” to get civil servants to understand how their efforts fit with the overall aims of the government.

Although the public sector as a whole will be cutting costs, Robinson thinks that internal communications services will need to be maintained – or even boosted. “Whatever the requirements for [internal communications] in the past, I certainly believe there is a requirement for that now,” he says. This could be a difficult point to square with politicians, given that many tend to point to internal communications budgets as the first sign of government waste.

However, Robinson believes that internal communications help departments to become more flexible because they can encourage staff to focus on specific objectives rather than on organisational structures. Communications “help staff to understand that we don’t need to institutionalise structures. Some of their tasks will be of a quite short-term nature and can actually be addressed and moved on from,” he says. This will, in turn, bring more of a focus on achieving outcomes, he thinks.

Robinson says that a more flexible workforce requires investment in both staffing and systems. However, in general, he believes that there has been enough investment over recent years; now it is time to start reaping the benefits. “Whatever investments we need to make now are quite modest,” he says.

So investment has made the civil service more flexible, Robinson believes – but on the subject of exactly where cuts can be found in public services, he is less forthcoming. This is a highly political topic, and one Northern Ireland civil servants will often be reluctant to discuss. But I also get the sense that, as the head of an organisation, he is unwilling to suggest that some of his employees may need to be made redundant. Already, he notes, the full-time public sector workforce has come down by almost three per cent in the last five years, “in marked contrast to the experience in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland”. Robinson adds that the senior civil service is currently at the level was at in the mid-1990s.

And so Robinson avoids mentioning the prospect of job losses – unlike other civil service leaders in the UK, who are already managing the task. Local ministers are concerned about the impact on unemployment, he says, and points to reducing the size of the public sector through “natural turnover – which I think is a very healthy way to do it”.

The future for Robinson
“Natural turnover” is something that applies to Bruce Robinson himself, given that he retires next year. But here he clams up again: he won’t be drawn on the process for appointing his successor. He won’t say whether, given the challenges facing Northern Ireland, it would be wise to employ another economist. Asked about his own future, he smiles broadly and bats away the question. All in good time.

In the end, our interview didn’t centre on rebalancing the economy, as I’d expected – although it’s clear that boosting the private sector and shrinking the state will be a major challenge for Northern Ireland. Instead, we focused on the challenges of forging workable policies in a new, and inevitably fragile, democratic system of governance. And this, ultimately, is the real story. Speaking to civil servants in Northern Ireland, it’s easy to find a real pride in the achievements of the public sector. The debate is moving away from nationality, and on to economics; away from identity, and onto policy. And the civil service has played an important role in shifting the nature of public discourse in Northern Ireland – moving it away from confrontation, and on to politics as normal.

CV highlights
1972    Graduates with a degree in economics at Queens University Belfast, and joins Coopers and Lybrand to train as a chartered accountant
1976    Teaches in Moshi, Tanzania, with Voluntary Service Overseas
1977    Works in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for Coopers and Lybrand on a US Aid-funded project
1980    Joins the Northern Ireland Civil Service, working in economic development
1995    Becomes chief executive of the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland
2000    Permanent secretary of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, NI
2006    Permanent secretary of Department of Finance and Personnel, NI
2008    Promoted to head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service

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