RHI Inquiry report – one year on
One year on from the publication of the RHI Inquiry report, has it made any difference to how government works in Northern Ireland? This blog looks at what progress has been made in the year since publication and argues that,
as we emerge from Covid, a renewed focus is needed on ensuring the RHI recommendations are implemented in a way that brings about real change.
The Inquiry report found that the RHI failings were due to
“an accumulation of errors and omissions over time and a failure of attention”.
The report put blame on many shoulders – Ministers, Special Advisers, civil servants, consultants – while falling short in its criticism of individuals that some were expecting. Shortcomings were identified in areas that should be basic elements of good government, like proper note–taking, Ministers reading advice,
Special Advisers being under Ministers’ control, and declarations of conflicts of interest. But in the end, it was the civil service that bore the heaviest criticism, in for example: the lack of specialist expertise used to develop a novel and complex scheme; poor governance and risk management; scant attention to value for taxpayers’ money; and inadequate whistle–blowing policies.
The RHI report was published on a Friday afternoon in mid–March, and was largely overshadowed by the looming global pandemic. We might have expected thorough scrutiny of the report and its recommendations,
but the days that followed and the year since have been dominated by Covid and that has diverted political and civil service time and resources away. The Executive sub–Committee on RHI implementation has been set up, but it has yet to report on its work. However, there has been some progress. A new set of arrangements for Special Adviser appointments was published in January 2020, providing new rules about the appointment and remuneration of Special Advisers, and making clear that Ministers are responsible for Special Advisers. A strengthened Ministerial Code was published in March. An annual report on Special Advisers was published in July providing details of salaries and relevant outside interests. A revised Civil Service Code of Ethics is being developed, to address issues raised at the RHI Inquiry like civil servants’ responsibility to the Executive as whole, not just their departmental minister. Work has continued on many other recommendations that relate to change within the civil service.
Now that we are emerging from Covid, there should be a renewed focus on the RHI Inquiry’s recommendations, to ensure they bring about real improvements in how government works here. Below are four headline areas.
More transparency and scrutiny are needed about progress on implementation. Despite all the interest and anticipation in the preceding months, the RHI report has had very little public or even political focus since its publication. Some of that can be attributed to Covid consuming so much political, civil service and media time over the past year. A report on progress from the Executive sub–Committee was promised before Christmas but has yet to appear. The Northern Ireland Audit Office will publish a progress report in May in its role providing independent assessment and validation of the RHI report’s implementation. The Assembly debated the Inquiry’s findings a few days after publication, but that seems to be the limit of scrutiny or ownership from the Assembly or its Committees. If we are serious about change in response to RHI, a renewed focus on monitoring implementation and ensuring real change is needed by those inside and outside the Executive and Assembly.
Effective implementation of the Inquiry’s findings will require a change in culture in how government works, not just box–ticking. There is of course a big risk that a narrow focus on taking forward each of the report’s recommendations could result in actions being ticked off, but no real change in culture or ways of working. The full and effective implementation of the RHI recommendations will require sustained, system–wide change and it will take time to do this effectively.
While the Department of Finance leads on implementation, a full and proper response will mean commitment to change across all Executive departments, owned collectively by Ministers. This needs to have as its ambition a serious change in culture and practice across all areas of government: ministers, civil servants and Special Advisers. Leadership and commitment from politicians and civil servants to this change will be essential.
Reforms in the civil service will require strong and sustained ownership and leadership. Most of the Inquiry’s recommendations ended up being directed at the civil service, and so that is where we can expect most change in terms of new policies and practice. Some of this is about returning to behaviours that would have been normal practice in the past, like proper note–taking and systems to enable whistle–blowing. But other elements represent a big change to how the civil service has traditionally worked, for example greater use of subject experts rather than generalists,
doing more to match the right person to a job role, and specialist project management. This means significant change from established practices in civil service recruitment, management of job moves and promotion processes. The recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service echoed many of the issues from the RHI Inquiry, and added in an absence of long–term workforce planning, an ageing workforce and a lack of effective performance management and career development. All this underlines the urgent need for civil service reform, but will also makes it more difficult to achieve. Bringing about such significant change will require strong and sustained leadership, and in that context the recent failure to appoint a permanent Head of the Civil Service is very concerning.
Finally, the broader and bigger challenge for the Executive is to work with a common purpose,
focussing on long–term strategy and decision–making for the future. A narrow focus on just the failings in RHI may miss the much bigger point. Northern Ireland’s problems with poor government go way beyond RHI, and just looking at addressing the issues in the Inquiry’s report could hit the target but miss the much more significant point about the need for wider change in culture and practice.
Reform is needed right across how government works in Northern Ireland to put a greater emphasis on long–term planning, decision–making for the future and working with a common purpose. Some of the problems identified in the RHI report – like poor governance, failure to plan, little cross–departmental working – are demonstrated on a much bigger scale in Northern Ireland’s failings in public services, for example ever–growing health waiting lists,
inequalities in education, low skills and low paid jobs, creaking infrastructure and the absence of a climate change strategy. A truly valuable legacy from the RHI scandal would be a government that commits to working seriously together towards addressing these long–standing social and economic challenges.
An agreed multi–year Programme for Government, setting out joint longer–term goals and how departments will contribute to them, would be a much–needed first step.