Northern Ireland Civil Service could need interim head ‘for a year’

Executive looks to change role of top official following failure to find successor to David Sterling
Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill appear before the Committee for the Executive Office

By Jim Dunton

08 Oct 2020

Political leaders have said they are reviewing the responsibilities of the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service after failing to appoint a successor to David Sterling following months of recruitment efforts.

First minister Arlene Foster an deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill have told Northern Ireland Assembly members that they are looking to appoint an interim head of civil service – or HOCS – who could be in place for a year or more, while work on reviewing the permanent role progresses.

Sterling stood down as head of the NICS at the end of August, eight months after announcing his plan to do so. But the recruitment process to find a permanent replacement ended last month with none of the three shortlisted candidates being selected.

Yesterday, DUP leader Foster and Sinn Féin vice-president O’Neill appeared before members of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for the Executive Office to answer questions on topics that included their failure to appoint a new NICS head.

Foster said she anticipated that the NICS would “probably need an interim for a year”.

“That will give us time to do all the work that we need to do to have the new person in place,” she said. “And if they have to give notice in another job or whatever, that they will then be able to start.” 

O’Neill said the executive was actively seeking an “interim HOCS” while consideration is given to the fundamentals of the head role – which carries a complex list of duties – ahead of a new round of recruitment.

“We’re looking at and re-looking at the role of HOCS and we’re looking at governance models elsewhere: how this is done and is there a better way for us to do it,” she said.

“That’s all part and parcel of what we’re trying to do to design a new process, because there will have to be a new process. These things can be lengthy, and that’s why we’ve decided to opt for an interim.”

O’Neill said she did not want to give a precise timeframe for the appointment of an interim civil service head, but it could happen “imminently”.

In addition to being the most senior of the NICS’s 23,000-plus civil servants, the head’s role also includes acting as perm sec of the Executive Office, secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive, and principal policy adviser to the first minister and deputy first minister. 

Committee member Trevor Lunn asked whether it was expected that the unsuccessful applicants from the first round of recruitment for a new NICS head would be permitted to take part in the next process, and whether the interim head could also do so.

Foster said she couldn't see why the previous candidates could not reapply.

But she said it was expected that the person appointed as interim head of the civil service "will not apply for the substantive role".

When it emerged that Foster and O’Neill had been unable to appoint a successor to Sterling following final interviews last month,  the FDA union said it was “deeply concerning” that the NICS was without a leader at a time when Covid-19 was just one of many pressing issues that required leadership from officials.

National officer Allan Sampson called on politicians to “ensure they do not to put partisan interests ahead of effective government and public need”.

CSW reported in July that the Northern Ireland Executive was offering up to £190,000 a year for Sterling’s successor.

Three candidates – including former Cabinet Office head of propriety and ethics Sue Gray, now perm sec at Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance – were understood to have been on last month’s final shortlist.

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