In the absence of ministers

David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, speaks to David Whelan about the many challenges his organisation is facing in the absence of a functioning Executive, a looming Brexit and further budget reductions.

As he approaches his first full year as Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling admits that the past year has been a “very difficult” one for the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS).

“The political context has been incredibly challenging,” he says. “We have now gone 15 months without ministers and the NICS has been left in a position where it is having to continue to oversee the delivery of public services without the direction or control of ministers. That is becoming increasingly difficult.”

Delivering public services, without ministerial direction, is clearly a challenge, but added to this has been the consequence of the recent Budget imposed by Secretary of State Karen Bradley, which outlined significant financial cuts to many government departments. This, Sterling explains, is adding additional pressures to service delivery.

“Of course, this is all happening in the context of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, which is probably creating the biggest policy challenge to the UK in over 40 years and which comes with particular challenges for Northern Ireland,” he adds.

Sterling himself admits that he is performing a role very different from the job for which he applied, including the inability to carry out his role as Secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive, which would have seen him helping ministers deliver the Programme for Government (PfG), and a very different context to his role as the most senior official in the Executive Office than that which would have faced his predecessors.

His third role is in the management of the NICS, a role he performs through the NICS board comprising of all departmental permanent secretaries.

The Head of the Civil Services is aware of the misconception that the absence of ministers and ministerial oversight in Northern Ireland should make the role of civil servants to deliver services easier, but contends: “I have joked in the past that not having ministers sounds like a civil servant’s dream but the reality is that this is far from the case. We are working in a system that is designed to operate under the direction and control of ministers.

“It’s right and proper that it should be ministers, elected by local citizens, making key decisions. Without ministers we are attempting to keep the lights on and to keep public services going as best we can, however, there are limitations on what we can and cannot do.”

The power-sharing makeup of Northern Ireland means that the various government departments are their own legal entities with limited decision-making powers in the absence of an Executive. These include necessities such as being able to pay pensions and benefits, while regulating various aspects of the economy and the environment. The NICS can also work to policies clearly outlined by the previous Executive or individual ministers.

However, as Sterling outlines: “What we can’t do is address the new challenges which are coming along where decisions are needed on how to allocate resources. These areas are proving very difficult for us.”

“Yes, when we get things wrong we deserve to be held to account but I think one of our frustrations is that sometimes the criticism we get is disproportionate.”

While there is a variety of areas affected by the absence of ministerial decision-making, one area highlighted by Sterling which he “personally” feels has been most difficult, is the implementation of recommendations issued following the conclusion of the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry.

Although the Inquiry recommended compensation payments to survivors of abuse, the collapse of Stormont days later meant that the Executive could not take the key decisions necessary to implement mechanisms for those payments.

“As officials we cannot step in to the place of ministers,” explains Sterling. “In the absence of ministers, I have made it a personal priority that we will move this along as far as possible and at the minute we are working very hard to produce legislation that would allow the Redress Board and the Commission for the Survivors of Institutional Child Abuse to be put in place.”

Sterling highlights that even with a Redress Board in place, there are massive policy implications for moving forward, given that some victims and survivors’ groups contend that the report by Sir Anthony Harte did not go far enough.

“As officials we cannot take those decisions. So, I have stated very clearly that when we have the draft legislation in place, which will hopefully be no later than the summer, then I will be asking the Secretary of State to take that legislation through Parliament. I feel that it is totally unacceptable that survivors of abuse have been left in a way that they have.”

Programme for Government

The draft PfG has provided a framework from which the NICS has been working. As Sterling explains, the NICS is confident in doing so because the document has been through extensive community and political consultation, receiving wide-spread consensus that an outcomes-based approach to delivery is desired.

“The draft PfG sets out the very clear view that if we are to address the big challenges our society faces, challenges that we have been wrestling with for a generation, then we need to be focussed on the outcomes that people need and find a better way to deliver those outcomes. That means that we need to be better at collaboration across government; but also outside of government with the likes of local councils, the community and voluntary sector and the business sector.

“We can do, and are doing, as much as we can at official level. However, without the drive and political cover you get from ministers, it is proving to be more difficult than it otherwise should be.”

Amongst the major volumes of work currently being undertaken by the NICS is that of Brexit. As Sterling rightly points out, the UK and EU have largely agreed on the terms of a transition deal until 2020 but without clear agreement on what will be the future shape of the border in Ireland.

While London, Dublin and Brussels have all outlined their desire not to see a hard border on the island of Ireland, and subsequently, not to place one in the Irish Sea, there is still no consensus on the practical operations of a solution, with time running short.

Sterling says that we have got people energised across the service working on key areas such as migration, EU market access, future trade policy and energy. There is also a focus on the domestic consequences for leaving the EU such as state aid competition policy and rural policy, recognising the significantly larger proportion of economic importance the agri-food sector plays in Northern Ireland in comparison to its English counterpart. While, the volume of legislation needed to give effect to the various changes is a cause for concern in the absence of a working Assembly.

Quizzed on whether the lack of a unified voice from Northern Ireland is hampering his ability to accurately reflect the concerns of Northern Ireland in the negotiations, he says: “As officials what we can do is provide analysis about the impact of various proposals that come forward, whether that’s from the UK, Ireland or the EU. However, we cannot state clearly what the best policy position for Northern Ireland will be. That will require ministerial position. Obviously, we are determined as civil servants to do what is in Northern Ireland’s best interests but without direction and control that is much more difficult.”

Brexit is not Sterling’s only cause for concern. Many areas of Northern Ireland’s public service are in need of major transformation. Four key areas: the health service, schools, criminal justice and housing have all undergone extensive analysis, identifying things which could, or should, be done to provide better outcomes for citizens.

Again, Sterling emphasises the need for ministerial decision-making to take forward the necessary actions. Highlighting the lack of progress on the plan for transformation of the health service proposed through the Bengoa Report, he explains that the Department is doing what it can to move the transformation programme forward.

“Without ministers to give a strong political steer or to give clear direction, this is more difficult. The absence of ministers is delaying necessary transformation in the areas where it is recognised that change is needed to deliver better outcomes,” he states.

“Allocating resources is arguably one of the most important roles for ministers and not to have our own local people doing that is very unfortunate.”

The absence is also having an effect on the what Sterling terms “the practical day-to-day issues” such as on appointments to public bodies. A key example being the Policing Board, which is currently not functioning because of the lack of political representation. The NICS has also had to reappoint existing members to various other bodies, something Sterling describes as “unsatisfactory going forward”.


As a core participant, Sterling declines to be drawn on the ongoing RHI inquiry. However, when asked whether involvement in various inquiries in recent years had perhaps damaged the public perception of the NICS, he says: “I am intensely proud of the work of the NICS. The NICS has played its part in keeping this society together through all the difficult periods it has faced in the past 40 years.

“I am also intensely proud of the way the NICS has responded to the difficulties of the last few years and particularly to the challenge of continuing to deliver service at a time when we have had no ministers.

“Allocating resources is arguably one of the most important roles for ministers and not to have our own local people doing that is very unfortunate.”

“Yes, when we get things wrong we deserve to be held to account but I think one of our frustrations is that sometimes the criticism we get is disproportionate. Everyday 23,000 civil servants come to work and deliver pretty much excellent services across a whole range of sectors and the community. I believe sometimes the focus on the things that have gone wrong is disproportionate.”

Welcoming the forthcoming publishing of the report into the completion of the RHI inquiry, he adds: “We are already applying some of the lessons that have been learnt in regard to what went wrong with the RHI, but we look forward to the inquiry producing its report, giving its assessment on what went wrong and what needs to be done to prevent any repeat of the mistakes on this particular occasion.”


Turning to his future vision for the NICS, Sterling outlines: “I am very clear that the civil service of the future is one that needs to be well led and focussed on outcomes.

“I have a personal vision that the civil service of the next two to three years will be seen to be one that is successfully delivering the outcomes in the PfG. My vision also is of a civil service that reflects the society which it serves.

“We have been doing a lot of work on diversity, and in particular on gender balance, with a top-down approach which has been making good progress. I am very clear that I want to see a diverse NICS, where people from all backgrounds encounter no impediments to a successful career.

“It’s clear that a civil service that better reflects society will be one that is more equipped to face the challenges of a modern-day society. Greater diversity ensures better decision-making and that’s why it is a priority for me.

“Sitting alongside that, I want to see a civil service that is well led across the service. We are already devoting quite a lot of time to developing leadership and management skills at the top of the service. However, it’s important that we cascade that down to all levels.”

Concluding, Sterling states that he wants to see a civil service which is “proud”, outlining his belief that the NICS has a lot to be proud of.

“It is quite clear in surveys we have done internally that civil servants do feel a little beaten up due to the scale of change and challenge that have been faced in recent years,” he says.

Pointing to an 18 per cent reduction in staff in the past four years and re-emphasising the reduction of budgets, the challenge of Brexit and the absence of political leadership, he explains: “There have definitely been challenges in terms of morale but I am determined, as Head of the Civil Service to do all we can to ensure people recognise the value that civil servants give, day and daily, and to create a greater sense of pride in the service.”

Show More
Back to top button