There are more vacancies across the Northern Ireland Civil Service than there are staff in its three smallest departments combined, it has emerged, in a report that warns the service is struggling to fulfil its work.
“Significant staff attrition” in the last few years has curbed both capacity and skills in the NICS and led to an ever-increasing reliance on temporary staff, the report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office showed.
More than 4,000 civil servants left between 2015 and 2019, mostly through a voluntary exit scheme. By March 2019, 6.9% of roles were vacant – 1,420 in total, more than the combined workforces of the Department of Education, Department of Health and the Executive Office.
The need to plug those gaps meant the service spent £45.7m on agency staff in 2018-19 – a 155% increase on two years earlier.
Temporary promotions have nearly tripled in the last four years, so that by March 2019 1,844 civil servants – 8.2% of the entire NICS workforce – were temporarily promoted.
Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly said the NICS was at a “critical crossroads” and needed to overhaul the way it recruited staff.
He said “urgency, pace and investment in strategic workforce planning, organisational development and people management” were all needed to rectify the flaws he had identified, and which had been a feature of several reports in the last few years.
The report found recruitment processes are “cumbersome, slow, and do not provide sufficient assurance that the right people are placed in the right posts”. Civil servants are generally appointed to grades rather than specific job roles, while “skills and experience most relevant to positions are not always tested”, it said.
“Many specialist activities, in areas such as project management, contract management and service delivery, are therefore being carried out by general service staff,” it added.
The report, published yesterday also calls for improvements to the way existing staff are managed. It found that just of the 22,300-strong NICS, just 19 officials received an “unsatisfactory” performance rating in 2017-18, “raising questions about the quality and value of this exercise”.
And there is as yet no NICS-wide workforce plan because of a lack of individual departmental planning. Before this year, four of its nine departments had not developed a formal workforce plan, and whilst a consistent planning template was introduced across the NICS in 2019-20, only six departments could provide draft plans.
Donnelly said there was a “real opportunity” for the next head of the civil service and permanent secretaries to use the report’s findings and recommendations “to substantially transform the service and its culture and improve outcomes for citizens”.
“Given the immense value that attaches to the work of public servants, now is the opportunity to drive this forward,” he said.
However, questions remain about what the leadership of the civil service will look like over the next year.
Political leaders have said they are reviewing the responsibilities of the head of the NICS after failing to appoint a successor to David Sterling, who retired this summer, following months of recruitment efforts.
First minister Arlene Foster said last month that the civil service would “probably need an interim [head] for a year”. The executive is currently seeking an interim head of the civil service while it reexamines what the permanent position should look like.
“That will give us time to do all the work that we need to do to have the new person in place,” Foster said.
Donnelly added yesterday: “To function effectively, NICS departments require the right people, in the right place, at the right time... at a NICS-wide level, there has not been a strategic focus on ensuring this is the case.
“It is important to recognise that NICS staff have continued to deliver vital services to the people of Northern Ireland during unprecedented challenging circumstances, including preparing for the exit from the European Union and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the NICS is now at a critical crossroads, struggling to deal with providing ‘business as usual services’.”
Responding to the report, a Department of Finance spokeswoman said: “The civil service fully recognises the need for fundamental change and will build on the progress it has made through its soon to be launched civil service reform agenda in line with the commitment within [the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement] New Decade, New Approach.
“The Audit Office report acknowledges that the civil service has delivered vital services against a backdrop of unprecedented and challenging circumstances and has made progress in many of the areas highlighted in this report.
“This progress includes reducing vacancies through recent large-scale external recruitment exercises; new approaches to workforce and recruitment planning; new learning and development programmes including those to enhance commercial skills in the areas of contract and project management; and the introduction of a range of diversity initiatives.”