We weren’t streetwise

Senior Northern Ireland civil servant confesses to a lack of imagination, not being street wise and not having a good grasp of detail.

Below are quotes extracted from Dr Andrew McCormick’s testimony to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry in Belfast on 10 and 11 October 2018.

You will see Dr McCormick use phrases like: ‘It was simply a failure of imagination’, ‘we weren’t streetwise’ and ‘I should’ve asked more questions.’

Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry Panel

Dr McCormick is described as a highly experienced senior civil servant, having joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) from university in 1980, where he had obtained a First Class honours degree at Oxford University and a doctorate from Queens University, Belfast. He has been a Permanent Secretary since 2005, serving in several Stormont departments – Health, Energy and Trade and Economy. So this is one of NICS’s top people. He was in charge of the implementation of the failed RHI scheme

Promotion

In December 2017, in the teeth of the RHI scandal, he was promoted to be  Director General of International Relations for Brexit. He will oversee, in the absence of local political control, Northern Ireland’s response to the challenge of Brexit with a salary of £130,000 and a 50% non-contributory pension.

The civil service work culture revealed by McCormick to both the RHI Inquiry and previously to Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee, is stunning in its evidence of poor management and incompetence. Yet most of the people referred to by McCormick, including himself, have at least one university degree, if not a

David Schofield QC, Senior Counsel questioning Dr Crawford

doctorate. They are held to be highly intelligent, but are they commercially aware, street wise, imaginative and technically qualified in the areas they work in?

According to McCormick, many are not  and he includes himself in that.

McCormick has never worked beyond the NICS, consequently never beyond Northern Ireland. It’s like someone never having worked outside Yorkshire, yet finds themselves in high office.

Provincialism

McCormick has also testified that there was little or no sharing of best practice with other regions of the UK and Ireland. So he became a big fish in a very small and very isolated pond that took pride in being ‘different’. It is not surprising then that there is such incompetence and blinkered thinking. This is provincialism writ large.

No wonder then that Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK and Ireland on just about every social-economic indices, no wonder it is seen as backward. It has  been so since the the time of partition.

Reactionary civil service

Many have thought this was due to its politics and the inherent sectarian nature of the region, since the drawing of the border in 1922 to ensure a Protestant majority. But now we see from the RHI Inquiry that a huge share of responsibility lies with the nature of the machinery of the state, the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Our politics and society may have changed in many ways over the last fifty years, but through the RHI Inquiry we see that the machinery of state has not moved with the times. The state remains employing, at huge public expense, highly educated and highly paid placemen and women who have extremely secure and well pensioned jobs, without much attention paid to what they actually do and contribute to the public good.

Anyone who has dealt with the NICS knows it to be frequently inward looking, extremely unimaginative, reactionary and often incompetent. Now we have one of its top people confirming this experience.

I dealt with Stormont ministers in the late noughties. What struck me then was how much the elected ministers – both DUP and Sinn Fein – were controlled by their civil servants. Very rarely did the ministers push back against their civil servants.

Cosy old ways

So in looking to the future in this place, it is not enough to reform our politics, the civil service needs root and branch reform. The assumption that a university degree from top universities ensures good managerial ability no longer holds any water. Perhaps the appointment of Sue Gray – “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of” – to the post of Permanent Secretary of Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance signals that the cosy old ways are finally at an end and the public might begin to see some accountability and value for the money invested.

Let’s hope this will become one of the outcomes of the RHI Inquiry’s final report.

Dr Andrew McCormick speaking at the RHI Inquiry, 10 and 11 October 2018:

  • ‘I should’ve asked more questions.’
  • ‘We would’ve had to be very, very pushy to get that through, and we weren’t.’
  • ‘here should’ve been a deeper analysis of the issues within energy division’
  • ‘Seems to me to imply a collective responsibility on all of us to have thought more, asked more, probed more’
  • ‘There’s so much there, so much, so much that could have been looked at, so this looks to me like a—this element feels like a collective failure’
  • ‘probably down to me accepting things too readily’
  • ‘It was identified, and nothing was done about it.’
  • ‘it was very unfortunate that didn’t happen’
  • ‘My involvement was clearly, with hindsight, too superficial’
  • ‘I can’t disagree with the Chairman’s use of the word “bizarre”’
  • ‘I should’ve had a better grasp of the detail.’
  • ‘So I too readily accepted their explanation’
  • ‘I’m afraid it’s another missed opportunity’
  • ‘I look back with regret that I didn’t ask more questions’
  • ‘How do you know what to ask? How do you know which of the unknown unknowns need to be explored?’
  • ‘This was a misjudgement. It was not the right thing to do at all.’
  • ‘commercial awareness was a deficiency here’
  • ‘There are a number of things that are at the pretty basic level that could’ve been done:’
  • we were uncertain of our way of working and probably too deferential’
  • ‘this went wrong because I did not have that (technical resource)fully in place’
  • ‘there wasn’t sufficient awareness of the deep, underlying problems,’
  • ‘It was simply a failure of imagination’
  • ‘We should’ve been more imaginative’
  • ‘we were not cute enough in thinking about that’
  • ‘our relatively passive behavioural pattern’
  • ‘we should have sat down and thought ahead’
  • ‘There’s no good explanation at all.’
  • ‘We were not sufficiently motivated to pursue it.’
  • ‘We weren’t exercising our imagination even to the limit of the extent necessary,’
  • ‘there’s no good explanation for us having been so passive’
  • ‘we were not attuned sufficiently to the urgency’
  • ‘it’s a limitation of imagination.’
  • ‘we were too restricted in our expectations. Um, there’s no good answer’
  • ‘It was not sufficient to trigger us to do something more radical’
  • ‘I just think we didn’t think enough or challenge ourselves enough’
  • ‘a cause of great discomfort to me that this happened’
  • ‘The explanation could be simply, you know, not noticing, not understanding.’
  • “Shame on us for not having noticed these things”
  • ‘why it wasn’t heard or why, if it was heard, it wasn’t acted on, I find deeply concerning’
  • ‘because of the very serious weaknesses in our relationship with Ofgem.’
  • ‘here’s a failure to respond to signals, and we should have been alert to this,’
  • The word “streetwise” springs to mind. You know, we weren’t streetwise.’

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