By Suzannah Brecknell

15 May 2019

As politicians return to the table to discuss the re-establishment of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, Suzannah Brecknell talks to David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, on civil service impartiality in the absence of ministers and the bruising RHI inquiry. Photography by Kelvin Boyes

In his upper-floor office in Stormont Castle, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is talking animatedly about an outcomes-based approach to services, making his workforce more diverse, major projects he has led and how proud he is to have worked on the Titanic Belfast redevelopment which has brought around £140m investment to the city.

It is just like any other interview with a civil servant who is passionate about public service and committed to reform. Almost.

Downstairs, a clutch of rooms in this faux-Baronial castle sit empty. Spacious offices which were once home to the first and deputy first ministers, and a long room housing a round table around which members of the Northern Ireland Executive discussed and decided policy. But 28 months ago (and counting) the table was cleared and the rooms emptied when the power-sharing agreement which underpins the executive and assembly in Northern Ireland collapsed.


When David Sterling talks about what life has been like for two years without ministers, his tone becomes less animated and he spends more time choosing his words.

“In the absence of a functioning assembly, the normal means of accountability don’t operate and that has inevitably thrust us more into the public spotlight – a position that I don’t think civil servants should be in,” Sterling says. “It’s not that I think the civil service should shy away from publicity, but I think it should be for ministers to explain and defend policy. We, in the absence of ministers, have had a higher public profile and that’s been difficult at times.”

At the heart of this difficulty lies the question of when – if ever – it is right for officials to bend the principle of democratic accountability in the name of public interest. While civil service efforts to deliver on the priorities set out by the executive before it dissolved have been relatively straightforward, the challenges have come when officials have had to judge whether to take decisions which would normally require a minister.

Perhaps the most high-profile example has been a court battle over the legality of the decision to grant planning permission for a controversial waste incinerator. In that case, civil servants argued it was in the public interest to get the incinerator built, but the Belfast High Court disagreed. At the Court of Appeal, the Department for Infrastructure lost again, with one judge saying its arguments had been “radical and anti-democratic”. 

In October 2018, UK government Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley responded to the incinerator case by introducing the Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act, which set out a range of conditions under which civil servants could step in to take decisions. 

“Our view is always that we best exercise our role when we’re under the direction and control of ministers,” Sterling says, but given that he “could never and would never” call for direct rule, the EFEF Act presents a way forward, albeit one with problems. “The impartiality of the civil service might be in some way called into question if we were allowed to continue to make decisions for a long period time,” he says. “We’d never regard [the Act] as anything less than suboptimal.”

Even though the legislation brings clarity on areas like public appointments, officials are still cautious about what they can or should do. Sterling points out that deciding whether the public interest is best served by taking or leaving a decision is a subjective process. “People are very quick to challenge us in the courts,” he says. “So naturally we’re slightly hesitant about proceeding in some of these areas.” Sterling’s voice trails off as he concludes: “But, well…this can’t go on”.

“It should be for ministers to explain and defend policy. In the absence of ministers, we’ve had a higher public profile and that’s been difficult”

Yet for two years it has gone on, and civil servants have done their best to ensure that there has been, as Sterling puts it, no “cliff-edge moment where things have crashed to a halt” as a result of the political vacuum. Without an executive to put forward a programme for government, NICS put forward an Outcomes Delivery Plan – “a rather civil servicey name for a document”, Sterling concedes – based on the goals agreed by the previous executive.

Diversity in NICS

The NICS Outcomes Delivery Plan was published in June 2018, setting out the 12 outcomes on which the organisation will focus in the absence of ministers.  An update in December gave data on the 49 indicators included in the plan, showing that just four areas had worsened, while 14 had improved and most had either remained the same or did not have new data to report.

“The 12 outcomes are the things that we know people are concerned about. We were pleased there’s a very broad consensus amongst the political parties that these are the right outcomes,” says Sterling.

“The outcomes-based approach is about identifying what works, what doesn’t work, and only doing things that make somebody better off. The big challenge for us is to be very rigorous in looking at everything we do, making sure that we understand what impact that will have on the outcomes we’re seeking and, frankly, stopping some of the things that don’t work so well, or doing things differently. 

“That requires working in different ways: it requires working across departmental boundaries, working with arm’s length bodies, and taking a longer-term view because a lot of the big societal challenges that we face we’re not going to fix overnight. 

“Doing all these things and doing them differently is proving quite challenging, but I’m encouraged by the commitment there is to this across the civil service and in our arm’s length bodies, in local councils and in the third sector.”


“We didn’t think as a civil service we could produce a programme for government. But at the same time, we thought it was important that we set out what the civil service was going to be doing in the absence of ministers,” he explains. 

But the plan can only take services in Northern Ireland so far. “We can continue to do those things that are consistent with policy and strategy set by the previous executive but what we cannot do is introduce new policy and strategy,” Sterling says. “So in terms of addressing some of our major challenges, our hands are tied.”

It’s for this reason that Sterling speaks of a risk of “stagnation and decay” in services, and also why he expresses concern that there has been relatively little public pressure for politicians to restore power-sharing. “I’ve been surprised that there hasn’t been more of a demand for something to be done… I’m concerned that this is a new normal and people have become accepting of something which shouldn’t be accepted,” he says.

A few weeks after CSW meets Sterling, the murder of journalist Lyra McKee during rioting in Derry changes this acceptance – prompting the UK and Irish governments to announce the resumption of power-sharing talks. 

A telephone catch-up with Sterling before we go to press finds him “encouraged” that the parties are saying that they would enter the talks with “energy and enthusiasm”. But he also recognises that while the structure of talks is not finalised, it is likely that they will include the questions raised by the public inquiry into the scandal that scuttled power-sharing in the first place.

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was rolled out in 2012, when current Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster was enterprise and investment minister. But the subsidies it offered were more than the cost of the fuel, and there was no cap to what individuals could claim. Famously, one farmer claimed a subsidy for heating an empty chicken shed – and expected to make £1m over 20 years by doing so.

Costs of the scheme mounted; reviews were either missed or not carried out properly; whistle-blowers were ignored. Even as the problems became clear, DUP special advisers not only delayed the introduction of cost controls but are alleged to have helped family and friends cash in on the subsidies. The lack of urgency may have been because officials and politicians originally thought the scheme would be paid for by HM Treasury rather than NI departments.

As the scale of the overspend emerged in late 2016, Sinn Féin politicians called for Foster – who had become first minister – to step down while an inquiry was carried out. Her refusal led to the resignation of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness and the collapse of the executive and assembly.

The public inquiry into the so-called Cash for Ash scandal has yet to report. But closing its formal evidence-gathering phase in December, chair Sir Patrick Coughlin predicted “quite significant criticism” for some individuals. 

Sessions heard of ministerial misdeeds and the behind-the-scenes power of special advisers. Suggestions were also made that both the DUP and Sinn Féin were flouting rules about the appointment of spads.

But at the centre of all this was the civil service. It was criticised by various witnesses for a “culture of laziness”, for not putting value for money “front and centre” in decisions, and for not keeping proper records (while ministers and spads made comments on Post-its to avoid official records, civil servants weren’t minuting meetings for fear of press leaks). Evidence also painted a picture of officials turning a blind eye to bad behaviour in the name of keeping power-sharing going. 

Throughout, Sterling has been upfront in accepting that he bears some responsibility for the flawed scheme – he was perm sec at Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when it was launched – and has apologised several times on behalf of the civil service for the failures of public administration. He has also issued an apology to the civil service on behalf of those at DETI. “Given that I was in the department at the time the scheme was set up, I know very well that this was a relatively small project in what at the time was a relatively small department,” he says. “And I think it is unfair that the whole of the civil service becomes criticised for what happened in one relatively small part of the service.”

Despite this caveat, he accepts there are many lessons to learn. “It would be wrong for us to pre-empt what the inquiry is going to say, but at the same time, it’s quite clear from the way the evidence has played out that there are things we need to address,” he says.

For example, the Department for the Economy (which was created in 2016 and took over the functions of DETI) continues to review and improve its system of controls, and there are new requirements for all perm secs to personally review key projects, which should help to ensure that future policy is properly challenged and tested before implementation. “It’s quite clear that the control framework that we had in place didn’t work as well as it should have done,” Sterling says. But he insists this was not because the controls were bad, but because they were not properly applied.

The Department of Finance – led by former Cabinet Office head of ethics and propriety Sue Gray – is reviewing the NICS code of ethics, including whistleblowing provisions, and is planning to consult on proposed changes. It is also reviewing NICS's record-keeping guidance which will include input from the Information Commissioner on best practice.

Sterling also wants to make it easier for people to flag problems. A review of whistleblowing policies has been carried out, but he says the culture should extend beyond these formal means. “Sometimes we find people saying, ‘I’m not actually a whistleblower, I just have concerns’,” he says. “So we want to create a culture where people feel free to raise concerns and where those concerns will be heard and addressed quickly.”

Alongside governance issues, there are two fundamental challenges thrown up by the inquiry. The first is the relationship between officials and the political parts of government. “There are big issues which we will need to address during political talks about the interface between the civil service, special advisers and ministers,” Sterling says. 

Civil servants in Northern Ireland operate in highly unusual political circumstances. The terms of the Good Friday agreement and the political make-up of the region mean officials will be serving a permanent coalition led by two major parties for the foreseeable future. Sterling acknowledges this “isn’t how a lot of modern democracies operate, where there is regular change of government.” 

One proposed change for the new NICS ethics code is a provision which aims to address part of this challenge – it includes the reminder that civil servants are responsible to the executive as a whole. “That specific provision is designed to address the challenge in a multi-party coalition where you have two dominant parties and three parties that have arguably less influence,” Sterling says. 

The second challenge, and fundamental to NICS itself, are the workforce implications of the report. “We’re going to have to ask questions of ourselves about how realistic it is for a civil service that works for 1.8 million people to develop policy in the same way that the Whitehall machine develops policy for 55 million people,” Sterling says.

In Whitehall, the Department of Energy and Climate Change had 77 employees working directly on renewable heat incentives; in Stormont DETI had 2.5 FTE staff working on RHI, from a total staff complement of 38 in the energy division. “Yet it takes as much effort to develop policy for 1.8 million people as 55 million people,” Sterling says, adding that one question raised by the inquiry is whether – and how – NICS could do more to collaborate with UK government departments on policymaking. “We probably did that a lot more under direct rule many years ago. But under devolution, there was a desire both by ministers and officials to develop policy that was right for Northern Ireland,” he says. “I think that is right, but we need to have a conversation, when ministers return, about how realistic it is, how much we can actually do.”

He adds that under devolution “it’s probably fair to say that [local ministers] weren’t particularly keen to encourage us to build close relationships with Whitehall and that wouldn’t have been confined to just one party”. Nevertheless, Brexit and the “preparedness agenda” has forced NICS to work more closely with its colleagues across the water. 

“It takes as much effort to develop policy for 1.8 million people as 55 million people”

Closer working has also been helped by Sue Gray’s arrival in Northern Ireland last year. “The connections and experience she has in Whitehall have been of huge value to us. And I would like to see many, many more secondments both ways,” Sterling says.

Gray’s remit includes responsibility for HR and pay policies, government procurement, IT and estates. She clearly has a big part in helping Sterling achieve his reform priorities for a service battered by recent events. 

Her appointment already marks progress towards one of his five priorities – improving diversity. Gray is one of four female perm secs in NICS (there are 11 overall, plus Sterling as head of the service). A year ago there was just one female perm sec. Gray was appointed after a batch promotion process which sought to build a pool of potential candidates for perm sec roles. Such group recruitments have been shown to increase diversity in appointments, and that certainly held true for NICS. But as in the UK civil service, progress against gender diversity belies challenges in other areas (see box).

Diversity in NICS

Sterling is “encouraged” by the progress NICS is making on gender diversity at senior levels. Its SCS is just over 38% female. “If you look at recent competitions, women are doing slightly better than men, so it is improving,” he says.

There is more work to be done when it comes to staff with disabilities and those from   minority ethinic backgrounds. Just under 2% of Northern Ireland’s economically active population is from a minoruty ethnic background, compared to 0.3% of the civil service. Across the economically active population, 9.1% are registered with a disability; in the service this is just 5.5%.

Another area of progress is with LGBT colleagues. “One of the things I’m personally proud of was that we took part in Belfast Pride for the first time last August and it was a privilege to lead the CS contingent in that parade,” he says.

“That had quite an impact. People in the LGBT network had said to me, ‘It’s all very well top management saying things and making commitments’, but really it was when top management did things that they knew the commitments would be lived up to.”

As well as diversity, Sterling wants to improve leadership. “I’m determined that, in simple terms, every civil servant should know what is expected of them in terms of the actual outcomes that we’re looking for but also the behaviours that we expect from people,” he says.

Sterling’s third priority will sound familiar to officials across the UK: he wants NICS to be “a great place to work”. This includes improving facilities, but it also updating terms and conditions to create agile workplaces where conditions of employment are “modern” and where civil servants have better technology to use. 

Sterling’s reference to outcomes points to the fourth, and perhaps most fundamental, of his reform priorities. He wants to see civil servants adopting entirely new ways of working: ones that are more collaborative and more focused on key outcomes.

“I’ve said very clearly that we are going to have to work in different ways, at a time when our budgets are tight, and demands are increasing,” he says.  “Collaboration is the key and I want collaboration to be the norm, not the exception.” 

Finally, he wants people to be proud of working in the civil service. “We know from our people survey that this is an area we need to improve on,” he says. “And certainly I’m very proud of what the Northern Ireland Civil Service has done over the period of my career – we’ve come through some very difficult times.”

n the first half of Sterling’s 41-year civil service career, he worked on policing and criminal justice policies, meaning he was involved with some of the hardest issues of the Troubles. Has that early experience shaped him as a leader?

“I worked through the 80s and the early 1990s here, including through the hunger strike in 1981 [when 10 Republican prisoners died during a six month protest]. I saw the worst of times in Northern Ireland; I attended a lot of funerals,” Sterling says. 

“That probably did shape me. I feel a sense of pride that the civil service came through those times and continued to provide good service to the community in the most difficult of circumstances. It was an organisation which, by and large, represented both sides of the community throughout that period.”

Having seen how bad things were, he continues, he is also “very seized of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, and the settlement that it has provided, the accommodation that’s been reached between the two communities which should ensure that we don’t go back to those dark times”.

For this reason, he describes the first phase of devolution between 2000 and 2003 as “heady days” despite being challenging in very different ways to his early career. By then, he was working in the finance department and involved with helping the new executive set its budget.

“At that stage, the big challenge was for the civil service to build credibility with the new executive because we had been operating under direct rule for nearly 30 years and quite clearly there was a suspicion about civil servants among the new executive,” he says. It was also a very “intense period”, he adds, because ministers "really wanted to show that devolved government could work".

“It was fast paced, it was long hours, it was very demanding but ultimately it was very rewarding because even at the time getting a budget agreed amongst the parties in the executive was no mean feat. Seeing [politicians] work together for the first time to actually govern this place was hugely satisfying.”

As NICS works its way through this period without ministers, its leaders must look ahead to that time when re-establishing trust will again be a priority and will need to be done in the context of the RHI inquiry. 

“A lot of work is going to have to be done during the period of time before an executive and assembly are formed to just build that trust again,” Sterling says. “But on a positive note, I speak fairly regularly to the leaders, particularly of the main parties, and there’s a clear recognition by all of us that things will need to be different and we will need to work better together in the future.”

The questions of accountability, transparency and governance raised by the RHI inquiry will be on the agenda as politicians resume their power-sharing talks, and the answers will not be clear for some time. But Sterling is confident that NICS will adapt to the challenges and changes it faces. “We’ve always been equal to whatever task has been presented to us,” he says. “Whenever things have gone badly wrong, the civil service has done what is needed, and I think people should be proud of that.”

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