By Joshua.Chambers

28 Mar 2012

As head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Dr Malcolm McKibbin has a very challenging job. However, as he tells Joshua Chambers, the main challenge has evolved from ending the Troubles to stimulating business growth

Flowers, flags and murals line the taxi route from Belfast International Airport to the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), each quiet memorial marking another dividing line in the bitter, factional conflict that once engulfed Northern Ireland.

As the road wends its way through the city’s housing estates, some of them still scarred by bullet holes and split by giant steel barriers, it eventually passes through leafy suburbs and enters the sprawling grounds of the Stormont Estate. On that estate, and dwarfed by the imposing scale of the iconic parliament building, is a compact, turreted castle. Here Dr Malcolm McKibbin, head of the NICS, sits writing at his desk as I arrive for our interview – and he’s in reflective mood.

“Before you came around,” he says, “I was thinking that whenever I look at the challenges we’re facing, I look back and am very proud of what the NICS has done in recent decades – where we had to deliver services to citizens in very difficult and troubled times. But I’m looking forward, and the problems faced by the 21st century civil service, although different from the past, are still extremely challenging.”

New problems, new solutions
McKibbin’s manner is quite different from that of his predecessor, Sir Bruce Robinson – interviewed by CSW last year. Robinson sought to close questions down, pressing ahead with only the points he wanted to raise. McKibbin is more expansive, treating each question as an opportunity for further debate and deliberation.

Their different approaches can be clearly explained by providing some context. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, powers were devolved from London to Northern Ireland under a system designed to produce coalition governments, with parties allocated ministerial posts according to their share of the vote. However, the staunchly unionist DUP and nationalist Sinn Fein – which quickly became the two biggest parties – often fell out, destabilising the administration; the Assembly was completely suspended from 2002 to 2007. Robinson’s main concern, therefore, was to keep a lid on these conflicts; but McKibbin, who took over last October, “came in at a very opportune time, in that the Executive survived the period of devolution between 2007 and 2011: the first time they lasted a full term.” Having achieved a full term in government, he adds, the coalition is “not going to be satisfied with stabilising the institutions as their goal; they clearly want to go into implementation mode.”

Doing less, achieving more
To set out its objectives, the coalition drafted a Programme for Government (PfG): a policy statement, approved by the Assembly the day before this interview. McKibbin says that the civil service encouraged ministers to think strategically when writing the document, ensuring that it was focused and achievable. Consequently, there are 82 commitments in this PfG, compared to 400 in the last one; and the Budget Review Group, chaired by the first minister and deputy first minister, has eight aims instead of 80. “Much more thought has been given to the goals that we’re trying to achieve in this programme,” McKibbin says. “I’m much happier with the reduced number of commitments.”

The next challenge for the civil service is to deliver these policies effectively. Devolved administrations have often become innovative hothouses, their smaller size and newer institutions giving them the flexibility to try out new approaches to public administration. For example, in Scotland the former permanent secretary, Sir John Elvidge, abolished the departmental structure altogether and created fluid, cross-government working groups to tackle specific objectives (CSW, 1 July 2010). While NICS hasn’t been quite as radical, McKibbin did want to tackle the problems of ‘silo’-thinking and poor collaboration that come with the traditional departmental model. His solution was to allocate each PfG commitment to a ‘Senior Responsible Owner’ (SRO), and to give them cross-departmental briefs: they “will be responsible for delivering that project, whether it be within his own department, or whether it is a cross-cutting one across several departments.”

Those 82 SROs are each pulling together a team of people drawn from all the departments involved in tackling their objective. They will remain responsible to their own ministers, but McKibbin will also chair an oversight group focused solely on the PfG targets. Each objective is split into measurable annual ‘milestones’, accompanied by a corresponding delivery plan, and SROs will report on progress every three months.
One common problem faced in public sector projects is that of staff rotation, which often weakens management continuity. Might changes in the SROs damage progress under McKibbin’s system? No, he says, because the PfG milestones mean that progress can be tracked year on year. “I have no intention of saying to someone: ‘You must be in this post for four years,’ because we’ve got 82 senior members of staff involved in this,” he adds. “We will manage any situation and put in the appropriately skilled personnel when and where that is required.”

Restructuring the NICS
As government commitments have reduced in number, so will the NICS departments; there are currently 12. Already, the Department for Employment and Learning is being dissolved, with its functions passing to other departments. The PfG states that the number of departments will be reviewed by the end of 2012. “There is speculation that a number of seven or eight might be more appropriate,” McKibbin hints. There are two committees currently examining this, but changes are more likely to come about after 2015, he says.

A reduction in departments will make government more effective, McKibbin believes. “By reducing the number of interfaces between departments, we will get better collaborative, cross-departmental working, which is more and more important these days because outcomes are more complex to achieve.”

Axeing departments would also help cut costs. After all, by 2014-15 NICS resource budgets will have fallen by eight per cent since 2010, and capital budgets by over 40 per cent. Are any redundancies currently planned? No, says McKibbin. He acknowledges that “in some very specialised areas, it may be necessary to effect redundancies,” but adds that “no area has been identified as yet, because the scale of the resource cuts we’re taking are less than appear to be being imposed on England.” Nonetheless, he notes, future reductions “will quite clearly have implications for the numbers of ministers and, indeed, senior civil servants.”

Coping with cuts
Already, spending cuts and associated changes to terms and conditions are causing some civil servants to feel “somewhat undervalued” and “de-motivated”, McKibbin says, adding that “staff are grappling with some fairly unpalatable issues as a result of the difficult economic times, and there’ve been real concerns over people’s pay, their pensions, their promotion opportunities and their job security.”

Recently, 40 per cent of his staff backed industrial action, he notes, despite the fact that “the Northern Ireland Civil Service is not a militant organisation. I think it is incumbent upon us to stand up and take heat as to people’s concerns about their employment. We talk about staff being our most valuable resource and not being able to deliver services without them, so we can’t ignore them when they’re saying they’re unhappy.”

“It’s important we try to make staff fully understand that we’re in difficult economic times, and some of these issues are being imposed, and there is little that I as the head of the civil service, or senior civil service leaders, can do about it,” he continues, adding that senior civil servants need to listen more to staff concerns – particularly when people suggest new and better ways of achieving objectives.

The role of the future civil service
In the future, NICS needs to be less risk-averse and more innovative, McKibbin believes – but “whilst these aspirations roll off the tongue fairly easily, they each have a fairly meaningful challenge for the leaders in the civil service”. For example, civil servants will be reluctant to adopt new approaches to service delivery if that increases the likelihood that they’ll face a hostile grilling by a sceptical select committee – a danger that’s growing as politicians in Westminster and Stormont move to hold civil servants more closely to account.

The solution, McKibbin believes, is for senior civil servants to carefully consult and assess risks before taking decisions, arming themselves with clear evidence that the potential rewards outweigh the dangers. “What we will require, to ensure that we don’t attract undue or unwarranted criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and others, is [proof] that we’ve thought through the consequences of our decisions,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead if there are potentially poor consequences. If, on the balance of our judgment, we believe it’s the appropriate thing to do, then that is the course of action we should follow.”

The civil service will also have to embrace new technologies, McKibbin says: when costing public service delivery, “people bandy around the cost of £20 for a face-to-face interview, £2 for a telephone call and 20p for digital engagement – so obviously you should be able, in this day and age, to bring in more digital engagement for the citizen and at times even improve the quality of service they get.” Northern Ireland hasn’t embraced Whitehall’s ‘digital by default’ model, he explains, because “we think it’s probably one step too far for us at the moment. We believe in bringing the citizen along with us, bearing in mind that there’s a range of computer literacy throughout society.” However, Northern Ireland is very proud of its NI Direct website, which gets four million hits a year from a population of 1.8 million – “a much higher [proportional] rate than I understand is happening elsewhere in Britain”, he says. In future, he adds, more transactional services will be available online.

Northern Ireland needs to make spending cuts: doesn’t that mean that it’s hard to fund the necessary IT infrastructure? “It is, but people will adopt a spend-to-save approach,” he says, stressing that he is “a fan” of that model.

Stimulating the Northern Ireland economy
On the evening before our interview, the Northern Ireland Assembly approved the coalition’s new economic strategy. McKibbin is uncomfortable when I suggest that these plans could be dubbed a Keynesian stimulus, “because people have their own interpretation of these things”. It is clear, though, that Northern Ireland is using fiscal policies – rather than just monetary policies, such as the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme – to stimulate growth. The strategy sets out plans to invest £425m into the economy over the spending review period, with £400m invested in indigenous businesses by Invest Northern Ireland and a further £25m – alongside a privately funded investment pot that NICS hopes will reach £200m – put into a fund designed to create 600,000 jobs. The government hopes that its other policies will stimulate £375m in foreign direct investment (FDI).

In order to encourage greater FDI, the Assembly Government is lobbying the Treasury for a cut in corporation tax, bringing it down from the main UK rate of 25 per cent (dropping to 22 per cent by 2014) to match the Republic of Ireland’s 12.5 per cent rate. The Assembly would have to help fund that cut by negotiating a reduction in the amount it receives from Whitehall, but ministers “believe that a reduction... would be beneficial in terms of the amount of FDI we would get, and the stimulus it would give the economy,” McKibbin says. “That’s largely from looking at the Republic of Ireland experience over a number of years, and we are somewhat unique [in the UK] because they have a land border with us.”
Future prosperity

In the longer term, Northern Ireland needs to reduce its dependence on public spending, which accounts for over 70 per cent of its economy. The government wants to get companies to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in research and development, while the public sector focuses on improving education and training to boost the skills of workers in Northern Ireland. Vast sums are also being invested in road-building projects.

Shrinking the state would also make the economy more balanced, but McKibbin says that in Northern Ireland “there’s not a huge political appetite, at present, for outsourcing”. That said, it would be “incredibly arrogant of the civil service to think they are the fount of all knowledge”, he adds, noting that health and social care sector reforms will encourage greater private and voluntary sector involvement, while education reforms will also draw in the private sector.

Offering private businesses another boost, McKibbin says that in future procurement contracts will be designed to be more palatable for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). To date, he believes, contracts have often been too big to allow a diverse range of suppliers to bid for tender.

And now that Northern Ireland is stable, it’s time to start boosting tourism in the area, McKibbin says. Belfast was incredibly proud of hosting the MTV music awards late last year, creating a “very good feel-good factor in the city.” A big programme of public events will run through 2012, funded by a £5m investment. For example, Belfast will open its Titanic museum this month, while Derry will host the Clipper Round the World sailing race later in the year, and will become UK City of Culture in 2013. Further, Northern Ireland will this year host the Irish Open golf event, with its local hero Rory McIlroy sitting as the number one golfer in the world – says McKibbin, with a smile.

Dashing off
Our interview comes to a somewhat abrupt end when McKibbin suddenly apologises, picks up his notes, and dashes off to a newly scheduled meeting with a delegate from South Africa. His car is already waiting outside, engine running, but his driver waits patiently when I insist on a couple of photos in the grounds of the estate before McKibbin jumps in and the car speeds off. He calls the next day for a quick follow-up chat, before packing his bags and heading off to Washington DC.

It strikes me that, previously, dignitaries would visit Northern Ireland with just one objective in mind: brokering a peace. The receptionist proudly reels off a list of famous faces who’ve strolled through the castle doors, from the Clintons to the Bushes to the Blairs. Now, though, the focus of such meetings has changed. It’s up to McKibbin, and ministers, to sell their optimistic vision of not only a peaceful, but a vibrant and a prosperous Northern Ireland.

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