NI civil service should be given 'formal duty to serve the public interest', think tank says

IfG also calls for arm's-length commission or What Works Centre to improve policymaking

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Northern Ireland’s civil service should be put on a statutory footing to help rebuild confidence in the policymaking process, the Institute for Government has said.

In a report which comes as Northern Ireland approaches 1,000 days without a functioning executive, the IfG said the devolved administration could “build on the role that the NICS has played during the government hiatus” to give civil servants a greater role in advising ministers.

The NICS should be given a “formal duty to serve the public interest and act as stewards of the longer term”, the think tank said. Its stated role at the moment is to “support the executive and its ministers in delivering the commitments set out in the programme for government”, but the report argued that it has often “been too eager to please”.


Civil servants have been effectively running the devolved administration since the power-sharing agreement between the two main Northern Irish political parties broke down in January 2017. This means they have been forced to take decisions that would usually be up to ministers, and the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling has called the situation “unacceptable”.

The IfG report argued that power sharing must be re-established as a matter of urgency, but stressed that longer-term mechanisms were also needed to strengthen the role of the civil service and improve evidence-based policymaking.

It suggested learning from civil servants in New Zealand, who “present themselves as advisers to ministers” and have the authority to produce reports without ministerial signoff.

“It could be worth considering whether adopting those practices would both rebuild confidence in the Northern Ireland policy-making process and make it harder for ministers to avoid difficult decisions,” the report argued.

The report also called for greater cross-departmental collaboration and to strengthen civil service capability through exchanges with the UK civil service.

Strengthening non-executive appointments to departmental boards could also add “external expertise and nous, potentially bolstering permanent secretaries when they need to question the feasibility of ministerial demands”, it said.

'Buttressing institutions'

Elsewhere in the report, the IfG called for the development of what it called “buttressing institutions” to support politicians and civil servants.

A “standing arm’s-length policy capacity” could help to overcome short-termism and “pave the way to necessary, if politically unpopular, change”, the think tank said.

This mechanism could be modelled on the Australian Productivity Commission, a group of permanent staff and 11 commissioners who produce reports of difficult policy problems.

“The main benefit of this approach is that the commission can establish an evidence base for whatever problem needs to be addressed, put it in context and float policy ideas (including with the public) before ministers have to take any ownership of the policy,” the report said.

A “less radical but potentially complementary proposal” would be to establish a What Works centre in Northern Ireland, based on the UK government’s network of centres, which supports good decision making in public services through gathering and synthesising evidence. However, the report suggested that the devolved administration could follow the Welsh government and Economic and Social Research Council-funded Wales Centre for Public Policy, which exists “explicitly to support ministers in policy making”.

The IfG noted that discussions about establishing a Northern Ireland What Works centre hev been “progressing for some time”.

There is also a commitment to establish an independent fiscal council, like to the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility or Scotland’s Fiscal Commission. The report argued that the body could go further than the commitment set out in the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement to prepare annual assessments of spending plans and the executive’s financial sustainability, by advising political parties on the viability of their reform ideas.

This would provide the evidence base for trying to put spending decisions on a longer-term basis.

Discussions on establishing a Northern Ireland What Works centre has been progressing for some time – and the idea appeared in the DUP manifesto for the elections in 2016.9

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