Ministers launch new drive to find next NI civil service chief

Stormont offers up to £190k for rejigged role that will be assisted by new “chief operating officer”
David Sterling, who retired as Northern Ireland's HOCS last year

By Jim Dunton

19 Mar 2021

Northern Ireland’s first minister and deputy first minister have launched a new campaign to find a permanent head for the Northern Ireland Civil Service after they failed to agree on a suitable candidate last year.

The application pack for the successor to Sir David Sterling, who retired as Northern Ireland’s head of the civil service – or “HOCS” – last summer, also reveals that the role has been tweaked to remove day-to-day responsibility for running the Executive Office.

It said first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill had decided to create a second permanent secretary role at Stormont Castle, which is home to the Northern Ireland Executive and the Executive Office,  effectively bringing in a chief operating officer to support the next HOCS.

The document said the “separation of responsibilities” would “improve proactive policy support” that could be provided to the first minister, deputy first minister and the Executive on “issues of collective interest and responsibility”. It added that the new structure would also “help build consensus and momentum around matters that fall outside the remit of any single minister”.

Despite no-longer being required to manage the Executive Office,  the next HOCS will still have overall responsibility for the 23,000 staff who are part of NICS; providing policy advice and support to the first minister, deputy first minister and the Executive; making sure the Executive’s business agenda is delivered effectively; and overseeing medium and long-term policymaking. They also need to represent NICS externally.

NICS is offering the same £160,563-£188,272 salary range for the revised HOCS role as last summer’s failed recruitment campaign. However supporting documents note that the pay range is “under review” and that a “higher starting salary may be available for an exceptional candidate”.

Jenny Pyper was appointed as interim HOCS at the beginning of December, in a posting expected at the time to last for eight months. The latest job advertisement suggests that final interviews for her permanent successor will take place in June.

Launching the recruitment campaign yesterday, Foster and O’Neill said the head of the civil service role was “right at the very heart of public life and public service” for all citizens of Northern Ireland.

“The work of the civil service influences all our public services, impacting all of us,” they said.

“We want to recruit a highly skilled leader as our principal policy adviser and leader of the NICS, providing support, counsel and challenge to us, the Executive as a whole and to the NICS.

“The issues we face are many and significant, but we are committed to delivering our priorities as set out in the programme for government and in New Decade New Approach.”

Applications to be Northern Ireland’s next HOCS are being accepted until midday on 15 April.

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