The Bloated Civil Service
The Northern Ireland Civil Service is an anomaly. Established with Partition it continues to exist as an entirely separate entity from the United Kingdom Civil Service, though its procedures and structures shadow the UK Civil Service. Like the UK Civil Service, the NICS has come in for criticism for its size and sleepiness. Historically it has been a horror to free-marketers and rollers-back of the state that such a small population can be so economically dependent on an unwieldy state-employed workforce – though during the Troubles keeping people in state employment may have been thought to be better than having them on the dole. It’s only two sides of one desk, after all. Even so, it is still an occasional abhorrence to the British establishment that Northern Ireland supports what Lord Smith of Clifton (formerly Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster) called a Civil Service that is ‘bloated, unwieldly and not fit for purpose’, and ‘more collectivist than Stalinist Russia, more corporatist than Mussolini’s Italy and more quangoised than the Britain of two Harolds’ – making it historically quite important. Given that George Bain, formerly Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s, was charged with looking at the relocation of civil servants away from Belfast to create a ‘better economic balance’ in Northern Ireland, it would seem that these distinguished former public servants (of a type) weren’t impressed with what they saw in Northern Ireland during their time in charge of the two universities.
So, to temporarily adopt the weird anti-obesity language of reform, is the Civil Service in Northern Ireland ‘bloated’? That depends a bit on what you think the Civil Service is. If we stick strictly to those working in the NICS then about 34,000 people are employed, out of a population of 1.7 million. That’s one in fifty. In Scotland there are 50,000 civil servants for a population of 5 million. So, one in one hundred in Scotland. Which would suggest that Northern Ireland is either twice or half as well administered as Scotland. But add in local government and quangos and both Northern Ireland and Scotland have about 12% of the population in public employ – or in the case of Northern Ireland, 32% of the workforce. The Republic of Ireland has around 21% of its workforce employed in some form by the state.
Northern Ireland has a large public sector, and within that a large Civil Service. But they do a good job. Or, at least, they serve an important function, which isn’t necessarily the day-to-day work. The real reason to treasure the Civil Service in Northern Ireland is that the Civil Service administers Northern Ireland slowly, at a speed understood by Northern Ireland. Since the first version of devolution there has been much kerfuffle about reform of the NICS. This ‘Reform of Public Administration’ has been based on an anti-bloating principle – proposals include reducing the number of councils from 26 to 11 and halving the number of quangos. Goldblatt-McGuigan carried out research for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister in 2006 and suggested that, in order to get Reform the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ had to be put prominently in every office used by a civil servant – not quite true, but they did use the phrase in their report. The solution to hideous, disfiguring bloatedness is to be a public sector fitness regime, in which strategic managers fantasise about themselves as Hollywood personal trainers.
The Civil Service is not for rolling over though. But neither is it for fighting openly with its new masters. The strategy is much more subtle – take this new, goal-achieving, client-centered language and use it to your advantage. When the DUP went into powersharing with Sinn Féin in 2007 the poor Civil Service had to gird its loins, having had a reprieve on reform while the previous administration thrashed around. But this time it was ready. Arlene Foster went to the Assembly with a statement about the Reform programme which ended, quite seriously, by quoting Winston Churchill (‘… the end of the beginning’). One might be tempted to think that was Ms Foster’s bit of the speech and that she must have been a bit anxious about it if she was comparing taking on the Civil Service with the Second World War. The earlier parts of her speech had the ring of the civil-servant-drafter, and therein lay the genius. The language of Goldblatt-McGuigan was turned against itself in a dizzying concoction of meaningless management Powerpoint-ese:
… our vision is of a strong, dynamic local government that creates vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe and sustainable communities that have the needs of all citizens at their core. Central to that vision is the provision of high-quality, efficient services that respond to people’s needs and continuously improve over time.
Wrap this up with the assertion that ‘successful local councils must be effective local champions that respond to the aspirations and concerns of their communities and guide — in partnership with others — the future development of their area’, throw in a reference to ‘stakeholders’ (that wonderfully inclusive buzzword which suggests that everybody is involved but nobody is responsible), and as if by magic Civil Service ‘bloatedness’ has been saved. Here is a civil servant thinking ‘I can write meaningless language in the style of a reformer and do it better than a reformer. So well that it will be rendered meaninglessly empty – bloated, one might say’.
So the Reform agenda in the Northern Irish Public Service can sound tough, but it may not be tough enough for the wiles of the civil servant, long experienced in dealing with such nonsense. As far back as 1991 Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, who had just retired from his role as Head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland, was taking advantage of his new-found, post-retirement leisure to ruminate, in Fortnight, and in Burkean terms, on the constitutional niceties of Northern Ireland. In doing so he refuted as ‘utter nonsense’ the idea that civil servants might seek to influence the political process they served. He then went on to suggest that the only question the political establishments in Britain and Ireland should have been asking themselves in 1991 was ‘Is the Provisional IRA being defeated?’ Given that he had presumably not sought to influence the political shape of the province throughout his entire career, he must have been bursting to write that question down and get it published.
Bloomfield tried to reform the Civil Service, but not on the scale currently imagined. Lord Smith of Clifton, that former UU Vice-Chancellor, thinks we have the Civil Service we deserve, but not for long if he can help it. He is thankful for the energy and ‘bouyancy’ of the private sector, post-Agreement, but this is being held back by a collective inertia stemming from Northern Ireland’s recent past. Speaking in the House of Lords in 2004, Lord Smith tarred a whole culture with a confident brush:
Under direct rule, Northern Ireland politicians of all shades, both here in Westminster and locally, are just part of the claimant culture to which, in its turn, the Civil Service and its mode of operation respond. It is an unhealthy situation, with totally inadequate political scrutiny and public accountability. Let us restore the devolved institutions and slim the budget and the bureaucracy.
It is reassuring in a way that our ‘bloated’ Civil Service and its general lethargy are not just the results of bureaucratic incompetence. They are much more than that, according to Lord Smith, in his capacity as intrepid adventurer who has returned to the metropolis with tales of the useless natives. The slothfulness and inefficiency, the dole mentality, is actually a real and true reflection of Northern Irish identity. Being ‘bloated’ may be the only common collective identity there is in Northern Ireland. It is thus outrageous that Lord Smith should imagine putting the Northern Irish Civil Service on an institutional Weightwatchers plan. That’s an attempt to change the entire core political identity of Northern Ireland. It’s our bureaucracy and we must insist on keeping it, because not only does it belong to us, it is the perfect embodiment (according to Lord Smith) of what Northern Ireland really is. But Arlene Foster must have known, as she waded through the verbiage of a speech meant to signal the end of the Civil Service as we know it, that we can trust in the Civil Service, as our authentic public servants, to find a way to lose, duplicate, dally over, complicate and then consult on any proposals for slimming.
[The Vacuum, March 2010]