Approaching her first full year in office, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), Katrina Godfrey, speaks to David Whelan about an outcomes-based approach to delivery, the challenges brought about by the absence of a minister and her position as a role model for women within the public sector.
Katrina Godfrey outlines a policy-focussed career within the civil service which does not naturally point towards her eventual elevation to head up one of Northern Ireland’s Executive’s freshest portfolios in the form of infrastructure.
However, in a department somewhat under-appreciated for its broad reach when considering its impact on the general public’s daily lives, the Permanent Secretary talks warmly about the opportunity to have a positive impact in areas right across the Northern Ireland economy stretching from roads and transport through to planning, water and sewerage services; and even inland waterways and ports.
Godfrey’s reputation at senior level in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) stems mostly from 12 years within the Department of Education, where, as Deputy Secretary, she oversaw policy development in areas including shared education, home to school transport and special educational needs.
Most recently, before taking up the Permanent Secretary role, she was located in the Executive Office as Director responsible for leading the development and delivery of a new outcomes-focused Programme for Government (PfG) and its supporting capacity building agenda.
Better outcomes and improved wellbeing across Northern Ireland, the mantra for the PfG, have been a key focus for Godfrey, as she seeks to build on the work done since the creation of the Department in 2016.
“I was fortunate in coming in to a department that had been ably led by Peter May before me and which had a significant amount of work done in getting it operational. My challenge is to take that to the next level and to make sure that that early work doesn’t just become a set of functions being bolted together. There must be a heart, a soul and a driving purpose behind what we do, with a realisation around how much what we do matters to people.”
Godfrey outlines an ambition to drive this realisation not just within the Department but much wider, hoping to “deepen the understanding of the importance of infrastructure to a growing and thriving economy”.
“A lot of what we spend our money on is easily taken for granted,” she explains, pointing to the example of water and wastewater, major infrastructure which has been identified as often under-valued given its largely underground nature.
“We’ve got real and significant problems in this area and I have a role in making sure that the consequences of not investing in our water and wastewater infrastructure are understood, as is its significance to our economy and to public wellbeing.”
Another focus the Permanent Secretary identifies is a “unique opportunity” to utilise the Department’s functions in planning and transport with a view to placemaking. Discussing the ambition to create places that are attractive to live, work, visit and invest, Godfrey describes work to ensure that the various skillsets across the Department are being enabled to collaborate for better outcomes, offering the example of planners not just considering a place in isolation but also collaborating on the moving people around between places.
“We are thinking about challenges within the transport sector, realising that we can no longer sustain the amount of car journeys at the current level. With that we’re working with partners to ensure that we create places where there is a stronger focus on public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure. We’re giving greater thought to the long-term consequences of failing to consider how we move around and that approach is being considered not just by the Department but across government.”
At the centre of much of these considerations is the need to address climate change. Godfrey outlines a close working relationship between herself and Denis McMahon, the Permanent Secretary for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), recognising agriculture and transport as two of Northern Ireland’s largest greenhouse gas contributors.
She highlights a shift away from desires to adapt to climate change to a more urgent drive to address it, adding: “At the moment we have to give a lot of consideration around the likes of road design and river maintenance to cope with the impact of climate change. However, we’re seeking to shift that focus to a more long-term strategy to not just cope with, but actually address climate change, and how that might look.”
Godfrey now makes up one of four females at Permanent Secretary level including the Department of Finance’s Sue Gray, the Department for Communities’ Tracy Meharg and First Legislative Counsel for Northern Ireland Brenda King. Aside from King, in place since 2012, all three women’s appointments in 2018 went some way towards enhancing the diversity at the historically male-dominated Permanent Secretary level.
Godfrey is modest about her position as a role model for females within the public sector, stating: “I doubt anyone thinks of themselves as a role model but I am conscious that, as I went through the early to middle part of my career, I had very few female role models, as there weren’t very many women at this level in the NICS.
“My early experience was also that there were very few women at a senior level who were mothers and who were balancing family life with a rewarding career in the civil service. On the other hand, I have always received wonderful encouragement from my male line managers and bosses. That has been affirming and it puts a responsibility on me to ensure that I can do the same for others.
“I think there is great value in using your own experiences to help others when the opportunity exists. This is true not just of women, or those who have dependents, but for people generally.”
Returning to the immediate job of work before her, Godfrey unsurprisingly highlights the absence of ministers as a challenge to the Department’s operations and progress.
“Where in the absence of ministers we face the greatest challenge is when a new issue arises or new evidence around an issue arises that would point towards the need for policy changes. However, these are the areas where we have to respect the boundaries that have been set,” she says.
Dismissing the suggestion that The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act gave greater powers to civil servants, Godfrey emphasises that the Act only offered the ability to exercise functions the department already possessed, but which would normally be exercised by a minister.
“It’s a very much a two-sided issue,” says the Permanent Secretary. “I think we all feel somewhat uncomfortable taking decisions without democratically elected direction. Anywhere else in the western world there would be outrage at the thought of unelected bureaucrats doing so but the other side of that is that we all live here, we care passionately about Northern Ireland and we must discharge our responsibilities.”
Godfrey explains that many of the decisions she has taken have been relatively low key but acknowledges the responsibility that comes with decisions usually reserved for ministers, whom are subject to scrutiny and accountability.
Taking planning as an example, where the Department has responsibility for regionally significant and ‘called-in’ planning applications, she says: “The ability to work through, objectively, a set of analyses and reach a decision that something should be granted planning permission is a huge responsibility. I’m very conscious that when we have decisions to take and the means to take them, it’s right that I make sure they get taken and that they are right for the economy and for the wellbeing of Northern Ireland.
“So far I have felt confident that the public interest is best served by those decisions being taken but each case has to be based on its own merits and we have to satisfy ourselves that the public interest is tipped in favour of a public servant taking a decision and not being deferred for a minister. It’s an exceptionally difficult judgement that requires the balancing of the interests that will be served with the responsibility and recognition that sometimes those interests will be best served by not taking the decision.”
Godfrey highlights the absence of ministers as also having an impact on the Department’s budget outlook, which she describes as “exceptionally challenging”. Highlighting the challenges as ones centring on both “quantum and duration”, she adds: “Single year budgets, in the business of strategic infrastructure, simply do not give us the best chance to deliver the best infrastructure for the best value for money.”
This fact was highlighted by a recent report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office on Northern Ireland’s road network which flagged, amongst other things, a £1.2 billion overall structural maintenance backlog facing the Department.
“That year-on-year approach, without the ability to take decisions with the certainty that funding will be coming, is a real challenge. It’s a challenge across government but in particular for us. Infrastructure, by its very nature is something that would tend to be viewed in a 20 to 30 year horizon and not on an annual basis. One year capital budgets present us with real difficulties.”
Turning to the quantum, Godfrey outlines that the Department’s capital budget was some £30 million less than the opening position for last year and £50 million less than the closing position.
“You don’t have that level of reduction without there being consequences,” she states. “The real frustration for me is that, because we can’t invest in some areas as we should, we’re spending more in the long-term. I’m not getting the value for money with spend that should be possible with longer term budgets of the right level.”
Godfrey emphasises that despite the challenges, the Department is moving forward in areas such as the recently opened first phase of the A6 upgrade between Randalstown and Toomebridge, County Antrim, progress on the Belfast Transport Hub project at Weavers Cross and the success of the recently launched Belfast Rapid Transit-Glider (BRT-Glider).
“If we had the resources we could be doing many more exciting things around active travel,” explains Godfrey. The Glider is a great example of investment in modern public transport attracting users to change their travel habits. The same goes for cycling, where greater levels of investment could help mobilise people to better transport methods. However, we recognise that to achieve this people have to feel safe and the infrastructure has to exist to support them.”
Looking to the future, Godfrey has three defining goals for the year ahead. The first is around awareness and ensuring that infrastructure’s role as an enabler is better understood and discussed. Her ambition is to see infrastructure debated as passionately as the likes of education and health. A second ambition for the Permanent Secretary is to enhance the Department’s work around place making, increasing the understanding of the many factors that combine to make a good place.
Thirdly, and relating back to the overall wellbeing agenda, Godfrey foresees a greater focus on the road safety agenda and a fresh impetus on keeping people in Northern Ireland moving safely.
“So much of this department’s work comes back to keeping people safe and for me, this is an area to energise in my second year with a focus on connecting people safely.”
Godfrey concludes: “While the role has been challenging, delivering the services we can is made easier by the people within the Department who have really impressed me with how bought in they are to public service and how passionate they are about what they do.
“This department is somewhat unique in that the majority of our staff are out in the field rather than at a desk. It’s easy to forget that the people gritting the roads, inspecting the safety of your car or driving the ferry are civil servants. They all take great pride in what they do and often don’t get the recognition they deserve. It’s a huge privilege to be at the head of an organisation full of people who care about what they do and get such obvious fulfilment from providing key public services to meet the needs of local communities.”