Almost a year after taking up post as Permanent Secretary for Department of Finance, Sue Gray talks to David Whelan about her decision to switch Westminster for Northern Ireland, and her ambitions to promote a more diverse civil service.
Once dubbed “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”, the announcement in early 2018 that Sue Gray had been appointed as a Permanent Secretary in the Northern Ireland Civil Service was surprising given the high value placed on her previous work in Westminster.
Recognised as one of the UK’s most powerful civil servants, Gray’s previous work in the Cabinet Office was commended by a string of successive prime ministers, senior officials and cabinet ministers.
As the Cabinet Office’s head of propriety and ethics, Gray had advised departments on standards and ethics issues, as well as corporate governance in public bodies. Her role included leading investigations into ministerial misconduct and investigations of civil servants and special advisors.
Experience in this area will be important as the NICS awaits the recommendations of the Coghlin report in the coming months, following the conclusion of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry late last year.
Gray hopes that, as she approaches a year in the post this May, she has led by example in terms of trying to change the approach to engagement and collaboration of her department with multiple organisations and other government departments.
“One aspect of the job I am relishing is the interactions and engagements I have been able to be part of, meeting and understanding the various sectors and organisations with whom my department works, both within and outside of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS).
“Through this approach we can ensure that the Department’s policies, procedures and processes remain up to date. We, as a civil service, need to get out from behind our desks,” she states.
One area Gray is clearly passionate about is the social economy sector. “Social enterprise makes a huge contribution to the local economy in Northern Ireland. I recently visited AEL in Larne and Bryson Recycling in Mallusk. Both are amazing initiatives making a huge difference to so many people. There is truly some amazing work going on in the local social enterprise sector.”
Gray stresses that the decision to come to Northern Ireland was her own and quickly dismisses initial reports that her arrival indicated a preparatory move by the UK Government to the application of direct rule.
“Prior to applying for the job, I had been doing some work with the senior leadership group of the NICS in developing their leadership programme. In doing so I recognised a want to be a part of the journey they were on. I wanted to make a contribution and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Gray believes that the Department of Finance, given its wide-reaching remit, is well placed for her to utilise her experience and bring a “different perspective”. She admits the portfolio is vast ranging from: “Responsibility for the Budget, the HR function for a workforce of over 22,000 staff, public procurement, Land and Property Services including the collection of over £1.3 billion of rates which funds vital public services, management of the government estate, IT and finance services for the NICS and the nidirect website, to name just a few of the areas. And of course I can’t forget about management of the absolutely stunning Stormont Estate. It really is a great Department to be in and I’m loving every minute of it.”
As well as acquainting herself with the Department’s various partners, Gray’s plate has been full in preparing for the recently announced Budget, progressing modernisation of processes and delivering on transformation ambitions in areas such as digital services and procurement.
Asked how that different perspective has manifested itself, Gray responds: “In my last jobs, networks were hugely important. In doing the job you have to establish the people you can trust and prove that people can trust you. I’m applying that here and that’s part of work in getting out of the office and establishing networks. However, I also want to be a voice.”
A civil servant since leaving school, Gray says that a different background perspective than many of her former Whitehall colleagues has previously served her well. The official, who in the late 1980s took a career break to run a pub outside Newry which she credits “for learning a lot about running a small business”, is an advocate of ensuring diversity in any decision-making process and believes that the NICS is moving in the right direction in recognising the value of such an approach.
Prior to Gray’s appointment, there was only one female at permanent secretary level within the NICS. Gray is now one of three female permanent secretaries in office and believes that greater diversity is essential to ensuring everyone in the NICS has a “voice at the table”.
“I think you need diversity around the table, and not solely gender diversity. A major move by the NICS is to ensure that we’re not surrounding ourselves with people who think similarly to us. Diversity of thought around the table is a great advantage and we aim to create a culture whereby people can and, are welcome to, challenge ideas or pathways.”
Gray appreciates that vocal civil servants are the exception in Northern Ireland but explains: “I come from a civil service that is very confident. Civil servants are also confident here and there is some excellent work being done, particularly at the frontline, but no one really talks about it. We need to showcase the work that we are doing.”
The Permanent Secretary believes that her relationships and reputation in Whitehall have been useful when putting forward Northern Ireland’s case, primarily in the recent budget allocation.
On whether her existing networks aided this outcome, she says: “I hope so. I have excellent networks in Treasury, Cabinet Office and across the whole of Whitehall and I’m up for using them. The same way they would be up for using their connections with me. It’s fantastic for me to go and put Northern Ireland forward.”
She recognises a difficult and challenging budgetary position. Outlining a desire to capitalise on the current allocation, such as £4 million for departmental service delivery transformation, she adds: “I don’t just want to keep up, I want to be ahead of what other people are doing. We can learn a lot from others, learning best practice and going further.
I have excellent networks in Treasury, Cabinet Office and across the whole of Whitehall and I’m up for using them.
“We need to be an exemplar of the excellent things we are doing here in Northern Ireland, but we also need to recognise the areas where we need to do things differently and where we need to make changes. It’s a difficult challenge but what we can’t do is stand still.”
In an effort to ensure progress, Gray is an advocate for changing the current system of setting budgets annually, recognising the challenges this poses for forward planning across departments and organisations. The Permanent Secretary reveals that she is lobbying the Treasury for a three-year budget. Highlighting the upcoming Spending Review to take place in late spring/early summer as an ideal opportunity for Northern Ireland to further its case for the switch, she hopes others will join the Department of Finance in arguing the case.
Gray admits progress has been made more difficult given the absence of a Stormont Executive: “We need ministers. This year’s budget has thrown up some of the difficult prioritisation issues around the system. However, what I think we can do is to get on with the job that we are here to do and ensure that we have refreshed ideas for when they return.”
Quizzed on whether the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 brought forward by the Secretary of State Karen Bradley, extending the decision-making powers of civil servants, had off-set the difficulties posed by Stormont’s absence, Gray outlines a scenario whereby the Act has been able to facilitate greater confidence in decisions around the likes of making appointments or setting budget allocations, but there remains a deficit in policy setting ability given the absence of elected ministers.
Concluding, Gray indicates her commitment to remain in Northern Ireland and making progress on the many areas of transformation and change which attracted her to the post.