Posted on Wednesday 16 November 2011 by Ulster Business

Ready for the challenge

Dr Malcolm McKibbin last month took up the key position of Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). Ulster Business asked him about his priorities for the new role and the challenges he expects to face as the chief advisor to the Northern Ireland Executive


What do you see as the major challenges facing you in your new job?

I want to begin by saying that I am very proud of the commitment shown by the NICS and of its achievements over the past decades when it has had to deliver services in some very difficult and troubled times. However, I fully appreciate that we need to be focused on the future and while some of the issues facing the 21st century Civil Service and Northern Ireland are different from those of the past, they are still incredibly challenging.

Those challenges reflect the increasingly complex and globalised economic, social, political, demographic environment within which we all find ourselves but also the need to meet to the legitimate expectations of our customers. The Executive’s Programme for Government (PfG), which I am confident will be consulted on shortly, will map out at a strategic level how the Executive believes these challenges need to be addressed. The major task for the Civil Service will be to do all it can to support the Executive and maximise our contribution to the goals and outcomes that it has identified and prioritised. However, the public sector cannot address all these challenges on its own, and they will require a societal response with real engagement from the private and voluntary sectors too.

I believe there is a need to increase the confidence that the Executive, elected representatives and key stakeholders have in the competence of the Civil Service and our ability not only to provide creative policy solutions to deep-seated social problems but also to deliver high quality public services. To do this will require that I, and other leaders in the Civil Service, further develop the NICS so that it becomes more efficient and confident; increasingly adaptable, responsive and professional; more innovative and less risk averse; fully and openly receptive to the views of others and always willing to engage in real dialogue; more willing to work collaboratively across government boundaries; and transparently committed to the delivery of customer focused and value for money services.

There will also be a challenge for myself and other senior policy advisers to ensure that the policy solutions we suggest to Ministers are based on evidence, on the experience of ourselves and others and are properly informed by those who really understand how best to deliver services. We now provide advice to Ministers in a competitive environment where they rightly seek advice from their special advisers and a range of other sources. I want to ensure that the advice they receive from Civil Servants provides real added value and that the skills and experience we have are fully utilised.

How has your previous experience prepared you for the top job in NICS?

Throughout my career I have worked extensively with elected representatives. Firstly with local councillors and in the latter years I have worked directly with DUP, Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist Ministers in the devolved administration, as well as with a very wide range of MLAs from all parties on the various Assembly Committees. This experience and the establishment of constructive working relationships with individuals and the local parties will be invaluable in my role as Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Executive.

Over the last decade I have led several large service delivery organisations as Chief Executive of Roads Service and as Permanent Secretary in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and then Regional Development. With ‘delivery’ being seen as a key priority, for this political mandate, this experience will be important. I expect that my delivery experience will be helpful in identifying policy options suitable for Northern Ireland and that can be implemented and produce the desired outcomes.

What will be the major impact of public sector budget cuts over the next few years?

Over the four years of the Spending Review our Resource budget will decrease by just over 8% in real terms and Capital budgets will reduce by about 40%. In such times of austerity, the need to ensure that the NICS continues to become more efficient so resources can be directed to front line services, is paramount. This is not a new challenge for us, as over the past three years the NICS has delivered savings plans that have already resulted in almost £800m of savings in 2010-11.

Can more be done? Of course. There is always more that can be done and I expect all departments to make further savings so we can strive to maintain front line services with our reduced budgets. DFP’s Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit can provide additional support to Departments in identifying potential efficiencies.

Saving Plans published by Departments for 2011-12 have a combined target of over £650m. These plans will require us to look closely at areas of opportunity such as: reducing waste and avoiding duplication; making greater use of modern technology and communication channels; improving asset management; smarter procurement practices; working more collaboratively across Government on cross-cutting issues; and being less risk averse and identifying more radical solutions.

You have said you are confident the ability and commitment of staff throughout the NICS will endure through challenging times. What would your message be to those who are planning strike action over pay cuts and pension changes?

Staff in the NICS have time and time again demonstrated their ability to manage through challenging times, delivering public services through the worst of the troubles, adapting to the changes brought about by devolution and we are now having to cope with the very difficult economic climate.

I fully appreciate that staff are having to grapple with some very unpalatable issues as a result of the current financial situation and that they have real concerns about pay restraint, reductions in the number of jobs and proposed changes to pension arrangements.

I know that pensions is a very topical and sensitive issue. This in many ways is an issue of national policy, with the Coalition Government accepting the conclusions of Lord Hutton’s Commission that there is now a strong case for changing all public sector pensions because people are living much longer than previous generations. There is an increased cost to the taxpayer due to this increased longevity. The Government has decided that there needs to be a fairer balance between what employees pay and what other taxpayers contribute towards public sector pensions. Increased pension contributions will certainly be difficult for staff but the intention remains to protect the lower paid and to provide an attractive and fair pension to all. We will of course consult with staff and the trade unions on further reform.

Despite all of these changes it is very important to say that the NICS remains, in my view, an excellent employer. In particular, we have managed the cuts to Departments’ staffing budgets through careful workforce planning and management and so have avoided the need for redundancies. I would therefore ask staff to reflect very carefully before deciding on strike action and, in particular, on whether the general disruption that will be caused to the public and the personal loss to themselves are actually likely to achieve anything positive.

The Civil Service has been criticised for increasing its wage bill and hiring staff at a time when there is supposed to be a pay and recruitment freeze. How do you respond to that criticism?

Let me explain why I believe that criticism is unfair.

On the issue of staff numbers, there has been a downward trend in the number of NICS posts over a number of years. Indeed over the last Budget period, which ran from April 2008 to March 2011, NICS Departments reduced by nearly 2,000 posts. The downward trend is expected to continue throughout the current Budget period up to March 2015, although one needs to be careful in comparing staff numbers before and after the devolution of justice as this added a significant number of functions and staff which previously were outside the NICS.

A freeze on promotion and recruitment was introduced early in 2010 to help us to manage staff surpluses in certain grades across the NICS. It allowed Departments to achieve the necessary reductions in staffing in line with their budgets and meant that we were able to manage our NICS workforce in ways that avoided redundancies.

Of course the embargo on recruitment and promotion was never absolute and recruitment to fill specialist posts has continued where it was absolutely necessary to meet business need. Moreover, because of our success in controlling costs, we have also been able recently to lift the embargo on recruitment for general service staff though we will continue our careful workforce planning and management to ensure that staffing numbers and costs are contained within agreed budgets and that Departments are resourced to meet their essential business priorities and to deliver key services to the public. Recruitment will be used to fill posts and to replace staff lost through natural wastage and turnover where we can’t redeploy staff internally.

We currently are recruiting a significant number of staff for a particular grade where we anticipate a shortage in the near future. I think this is actually good news for the local economy in that it is providing much needed job opportunities for people looking for work in a very difficult job market. But overall I expect the total number of NICS posts to keep falling.

With regard to pay, we have frozen our pay scales for the vast majority of staff for the last two years. This has given us greater flexibility to live within budgets and protect front line services.

Do you believe there is still a need to develop a closer relationship between the public sector and the business community?

Yes. There are already strong links between many departments and the business community. For example ministers and officials in DETI, DEL, DFP and DRD are in regular contact both with organisations which represent businesses (including CBI, IOD, Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Small Business etc) and with individual companies. All these organisations value the ease with which they can access ministers and senior officials. These close relationships will be further built upon and will help us to better understand the problems being faced by businesses at all levels and to develop creative policy options to help improve the local economy.

Fact File

Dr Malcolm McKibbin graduated from the University of Southampton in 1978 with an honours degree in Civil Engineering and subsequently gained a Doctor of Philosophy Degree and MBA at the University of Ulster. He was chief executive of the Roads Service and also held senior roles in DFP and DRD before becoming Permanent Secretary of the Department of Agriculture in 2007 and Permanent Secretary for the Department of Regional Development in 2010.


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