Vacancy crisis sees NICS agency staff spending hit £46m a year

Audit Office director says figure represents a 155% increase over the past two years
Northern Ireland Audit Office director Rodney Allen gives evidence to NI Assembly members

By Jim Dunton

27 Nov 2020

Public-spending chiefs have warned that a “root-and-branch” review of recruitment into the Northern Ireland Civil Service is required to deal with spiralling spending on agency staff, which has more than doubled to £46m over the past two years.

A session of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee heard that the NICS’s workforce planning was “inadequate” and that reliance on temporary staffing fixes had to end before the situation worsened.

Northern Ireland Audit Office director Rodney Allen told yesterday’s session that the 22,000-strong NICS currently had a vacancy rate of nearly 7% and was “struggling” to deal with business-as-usual in the midst of Brexit work and the coronavirus response.

The NICS's most high-profile vacancy is the head of the civil service, which has been unfilled since David Sterling retired at the end of August. An interim replacement is expected to take on the role while a review of the post and its unique responsibilities takes place.

Allen said it was important to note that NICS staff had continued to deliver vital services to the public, but stressed that substantial workforce restructuring and the voluntary exit scheme – designed to reduce the NICS headcount by 3,000-4,000 – had been followed by “unprecedented challenges”.

As well as Brexit and Covid-19, the NICS has had to deal with the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont that left civil servants filling in for the lack of political leadership for three years.

Allen said the NICS was at a “crossroads” and required a “root-and-branch review” to shore it up for the future, reducing spending on temporary staff in the process.

“Our conclusion is that workforce planning has been inadequate and there is rapid civil-service progress now needed to reduce significant vacancies and an ever-increasing reliance on temporary staffing solutions,” he said.

“The civil service is a very ageing workforce. At March 2019, some 45% were over the age of 50. That just emphasises the importance of succession planning and workforce planning within the civil service to make sure that the workforce is not eroded further.”

Allen said fewer than 1% of NICS staff were aged under 24.

He told assembly members that three of Northern Ireland’s government departments had been unable to provide draft workforce pans when the Audit Office requested them.

Allen said feedback from the departments that did have draft workforce plans to share indicated that skilled staff were most urgently needed in project management, contract management and service delivery roles.

“Vacancy rates have increased to nearly 7%, necessitating the use of various temporary staffing solutions, for instance temporary promotions are now over 8% of the workforce,” he said.

“All six departments who provided draft workforce plans had temporary promotions lasting in excess of four years.”

Public Accounts Committee chair William Humphrey said the Audit Office report’s findings were “damning and stark”.

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