Bruce Robinson’s reflections

robinson-1Sir Bruce Robinson, the recently retired Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, talks to Owen McQuade about his time leading the Civil Service and his experience of working to improve the local economy.

Bruce Robinson has been at the forefront of efforts to transform the Northern Ireland Civil Service over many years. Before getting the top job at NICS he was involved in economic development, starting in the IDB and then as Permanent Secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Looking back on the change programme you led over the past few years, what are the highlights for you?

The major achievement has been to create the shared services and the effective running of the 12 departments from single platforms. That those key share services are now fully operational and embedded is terrific.

NI Direct is an excellent platform to take the further development of government services, delivered to the citizen, forward into the future. This will mean considerable change. There is no doubt that NI Direct has been a success and there is a next generation of service delivery to be done through that. The potential to keep service delivery both highly effective for the citizen and also highly efficient for the tax payer.

What are the difficult aspects of leading large scale change projects?

On large scale change projects a lot of hard work goes in before you start to see the benefits, so the challenge is on the one hand to recognise it’s a long-term process and, if you like, hold your nerve and on the other hand not to be insensitive to the feedback you are getting.

We did change things mid-stream in a number of areas. More around how we sought to engage staff in the process and we were very open to that and often you are doing that with incomplete feedback.

One of the toughest pieces was having the conviction to hold off on implementing HR Connect in the summer of 2009. It was due to go live in July and we held off until January [2010] and that was a tough call. We did get it right when we did launch, although it was very difficult and was only possible because of the testing validating we had done in the interim.

How have these investments changed the delivery of public services?

[There is] a greater sense of service-wide approach to issues now. Previously there was a departmental focus on how things happen. There is now a greater appreciation of doing things on a service-wide basis. At the core of that is, I have always felt, that our system is far too small to be able to justify investment in technology and systems at a departmental level – only at a NICS level.

The quality of service delivery to the citizen, I was convinced, needed the technological platforms and the support and infrastructure to deliver a really high quality public service.

I didn’t see any way of doing that without significant investment, not just in technology but also in our people. It seemed to me that any step change in the quality of service required investment, and that could be self-financing by improving the effectiveness and efficiency of what we are doing. It didn’t have to come at a significant price. Both of these goals were attainable.

How has the partnership with the private sector worked in delivering the projects?

We always had a vision of what we were trying to do and in that sense we were able to convince our private sector partners. We were ambitious and they felt we were committing significant resources to the programme. I do look back on it with considerable satisfaction.

Why did you undertake should a huge change programme when perhaps there wasn’t the obvious driver? Particularly as times were good.

I guess it comes back to some sort of sense of desire to see services in Northern Ireland to be as good as anywhere else in the world [and] a professional pride in seeing things done exceptionally well. I also felt there was an opportunity to create a Civil Service that people would be proud to serve in.

Over the past decade there has been a huge challenge around cost efficiency in service delivery in government systems.

On a large scale sets of projects such as these, at a particular point in time you may not be making as much progress as you would like but I do think over the five-year time frame we have seen substantial improvement in virtually all of the metrics. Certainly the investment has been justified.

There is now a new set of challenges and a new environment. Some very significant changes such as welfare reform, and the project management skills are there to deliver such changes.

Reflecting on your time in IDB and then DETI, what sticks out as regards developing the local economy?

The definition of an optimist is to have been involved in selling Northern Ireland as an investment location in the 1980s and 90s. It certainly had its challenges but selling here will always have considerable challenges.

There isn’t a significant local market, so therefore in your suite of attractions, you are missing quite a valuable one. For example, if you thing of investments in India or China, they are as much about the thought they are going to become highly significant markets for any products. Whereas we can never really offer that sort of opportunity.

This is about, and always has been about niche marketing and understanding what the customer is after and us being flexible to do that. The short lines of decision-making are our competitive advantage.

[I am] disappointed about one thing. In the late 1990s and early 00s we seemed to be closing the gap in terms of GVA [with GB]. It was about ’93 to 2000 that we did start to close the gap for about five years. There was a bit of a credit crunch around ’97 which didn’t happen here because I guess our property prices had not really gone out of line. I would really [have] liked to understand better what was really happening during that period and I did have a strong sense that a significant build in exporting across a number of sectors was behind that.

Fundamentally that is what we have to see. We have to build our international competiveness and the drive to improve efficiency is relentless. I was always very struck by companies during that period, companies like AVX, who were facing

10 per cent per annum reductions in selling prices year-on-year as manufacturers of electronic components and they were able to cope with that over a very sustained period. The challenge is right across the economy and it is not just for the private sector but also for government and its cost base.

robinson-2Do you have any strong views on the corporation tax issue?

The issue is quite complex and one of the difficult pieces on corporation tax is that it is going to be quite costly and I think there is no law of gravity here that says inevitably the benefits will outweigh the costs. It is likely to be quite a reduction in public expenditure and that will definitely happen and it is not as clear cut that the public sector growth will outweigh that. In principle it has quite a considerable potential but there is quite a tough bit in playing that out and that’s what makes it a tough call politically.

How has the nature of public sector changed since you first joined it?

I joined at 30, which was comparatively late and unusually because of this I had two years’ probation to do. There have been two big changes. One as a result of devolution, with local ministers, has been a very significant and a very positive change. Devolution is a much more responsive system. The other big change is the development of professional skills within the Civil Service and that has been too long in coming. That’s not the case now and I think we have become much more professional.

How has leading a public sector organisation changed?

Leadership is more difficult nowadays because of a bigger spread of complexities. There are more demands around cost of delivery that wouldn’t have been the same in the past. One of the hardest things in the public sector is to understand what to stop doing and that is a really difficult area. Helping ministers understand what is a priority is always difficult, particularly in the present financial climate. That is the nub of any resource allocation discussion and decision. In today’s climate it’s inescapable.

Looking to the future, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the public sector?

The economic situation is by far the biggest challenge. Public expenditure is going to be under pressure for quite a period of time and it’s evident now that the economic prospects for at least the next 18 months are quite flat. In this context the pressures on elected representatives are going to be very significant.

I also think some of the changes the Coalition Government are introducing are going to be very demanding, particularly with welfare reform. There are significant professional reputational risks in implementing huge technological and systems changes.

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