Detailed extracts from the documents

By Kathryn Torney

November 1 2007:

Nigel Hamilton writes to the First and Deputy First Minister and copies in Derek Baker (director, CPG) about arrangements to appoint a new head of the NI Civil Service when he retires in Spring 2008.

Mr Hamilton writes: “It has been policy now for a number of years, following a Review of the Senior Civil Service that – apart from exceptional circumstances – the post of the Head of the Civil Service, and also vacancies at Permanent Secretary level should be filled by way of open public competition, through public advertisement.

“I was recruited in 2002 following public advertisements as have almost all Permanent Secretarues in recent years.

“In keeping therefore with recommended best practice, it would be my view that the post of Head of the Civil Service should be filled by way of a public, open recruitment competition.

“That competition would be run by the Civil Service Commissioners, within the terms of the Recruitment Code laid down by the Commissioners.”

He adds: “Again in keeping with best practice, I would not be a member of the Panel, nor involved at any stage, except agreeing the job description, panel membership etc at the outset. The personnel advice to the panel would be provided by Derek Baker, director of Central Personnel Group in DFP.”

And he continues: “I would advise you that in previous Permanent Secretary competitions for which I have been responsible, previous Ministers (both devolved and direct rule) were content to agree to have a public, open competition but not to become personally involved in further stages of the process. They were advised of the outcome of the competition.”

Mr Hamilton attaches the latest draft of documentation including selection criteria, job specification, a draft job advert and the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland’s recruitment code.

The code includes: “Exceptions to the Merit Principle should be rare and departments must justify why it is not reasonably practicable to make the appointment in question in accordance with the Merit Principle.”

And: “In considering the application of exceptions to the Merit Principle, departments should bear in mind their continuing obligation to ensure compliance with relevant employment and equality legislation, when carrying out their selection and appointment procedures. Regard should be paid to the potential for unfair treatment of those who are not given the opportunity to be considered for the appointment in question.”

February 9 2011:

Email from Derek Baker (director of Corporate HR in the Department of Finance and Personnel) to ‘HOCS’ (Head of the Civil Service – Sir Bruce Robinson), subject ‘NICS recruitment’.

He writes: “Further to my note, a further point occurred to me. Article 6 of the Civil Service Commissioners (NI) Order 1999 states that “…no appointment shall be made to any situation in the Senior Civil Service …. without the written approval of the Commissioners, whose decision shall be final.” In other words, the Commissioners have the final power of approval or veto over any external appointment to the SCS, including to the HOCS post, and we can be certain that they would not under any circumstances set aside the Merit principle.”

February 11 2011:

Sir Bruce writes to PS/FM and PS/dFM (we assume PS relates to private secretary) and copies in Derek Baker. The document is marked “restricted – senior management”.

He sets out the role of the Civil Service Commissioners in NICS (including senior civil service) appointments. He also outlines that the application of the Merit Principle means that in all competitions there is a clear ranking in order of candidates and that the post is offered first to the highest ranked candidate. Sir Bruce also says that the role of Ministers in senior appointments is clearly set out in the Commissioner’s Code. If Minister’s wish they can be involved in three aspects of the competition – planning of the recruitment exercise, development of recruitment literature (including the advertisement, selection criteria, job and person specifications) and endorsement of the lead candidate.

July 1 2011:

Email from Sir Bruce to OFMDFM special advisors.

He says: “In response to our discussion, I attach below suggested names to chair the panel along with pen pictures.”

July 8 2011:

Sir Bruce writes to PS for First and Deputy First Minister. Again the document is marked “restricted – senior management”. He writes: “I have set out my recommendations on the arrangements to appoint a new HOCS and we have discussed and agreed these. I am now proceeding to implement these.”

Sir Bruce writes: “It will be an internal competition. Applications will be invited from NICS Permanent Secretaries who possess the relevant skills and experience – the proposed trawl notice is at Annex A.”

He continues: “The panel I am recommending is chaired by Stephen Kingon CBE, the outgoing chair of InvestNI, and consists of Dame Gill Morgan, Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, and Mr Paul Haran, former Secretary General in the Department of Enterprise in Dublin. Once this process is initiated I will have no further role in the process.”

He says the panel’s recommendations on suitable candidates will be provided to Ministers for decision.

He supplies candidate information and eligibility criteria, terms and conditions etc. This includes that the starting salary is £141,800.

July 29 2011:

Sir Bruce Robinson writes to Brenda McLaughlin (chairperson of the Civil Service Commissioners) to inform her of the process he is initiating to appoint a successor to the post of Head of the NI Civil Service.

He writes: “In line with Minister’s decision, an internal competition will be initiated shortly. This approach is based on the particular distinctive skills and experience assessed as being required for the HOCS post at this current time.” He concludes by saying that the panel’s recommendations on candidates suitable for appointment will then be provided to Ministers for decision.

August 1 2011:

Derek Baker writes to Sir Bruce Robinson and attaches a revised version of the Candidate Information Booklet. The letter is marked “restricted – senior staff”. He says: “This represents a fairly radical revision of the document attached to your submission of 8 July and is designed to take the form of a trawl, stripping out material which otherwise would have been more relevant to an external recruitment competition.”

He continues: “It seems to me that the main focus now should be on the eligibility criteria and in particular whether these need to be prescribed more tightly to ensure that applications are received only from candidates with suitable skills and experience.”

A copy of the proposed candidate booklet is provided. It says that NICS is a major employer with approximately 28,000 staff and a total annual budget of £17m. It also points out that the head of the NICS is also head of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive.

August 2 2011:

Derek Baker writes to Stephen Kingon, Dame Gill Morgan and Paul Haran. He tells them that a “competition initiation meeting” has been arranged for the selection panel on August 4 in Sir Bruce Robinson’s office at Stormont Castle. He attached a revised draft of the Candidate Information Booklet which he warns “has been changed fairly radically from the first version…. not least to reflect that this will be an internal promotion as opposed to an external recruitment competition.” Mr Baker says that the primary objective of the meeting is to agree the Candidate Information Booklet so it can be issued hopefully during the week commencing 8 August.

Mr Baker also writes: “I understand that it had previously been tentatively agreed that interviews would take place on 14 September 2011. We understand that at least one potential candidate may not be available on this date and, as a precaution, it would be helpful if members of the selection panel could consider their availability to hold interviews during the week commencing 19 September and beyond.”

Record of Competition Initiation Meeting for NICS (no date given): This document is branded with the HRConnect logo – which is the outsourced service provider for a range of HR services for the NICS.

Those in attendance include Derek Baker, the three panel members, HRConnect representatives and Sir Bruce Robinson. A note confirms that Sir Bruce “having contributed to the information in the candidate information booklet left the meeting following the discussion on the eligibility criteria.”

The document stated when the post will be advertised and “Derek Baker to confirm that potential applicants are aware of advertising dates.”

August 5 2011:

Brenda McLaughlin, chairperson of the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland, writes to Sir Bruce Robinson in response to his letter of July 29.

She writes: “Commissioners are concerned to ensure that the Merit Principle is upheld in spirit and in practice and that, where possible and appropriate, a diverse range of potential candidates, from within and beyond the NICS, have the opportunity to apply for senior appointments. It is our view that the Merit Principle is best served through fair and open competition.”

She continues: “As regulators we find the proposed approach and process unsatisfactory. We consider this to be a retrograde step, particularly in light of the fact that the last two appointments to this post were made by open competition.”

She said she would welcome an early meeting with him (Mr Robinson) to discuss this matter.

August 24 2011:

Sir Bruce writes to PS/First Minister and PS/Deputy First Minister with an update on the head of civil service post. He says the competition closes on August 26th and interviews are scheduled for September 19. He expects Ministers to be informed of the outcome on September 20.

Sir Bruce informs them that he would be leaving the service at the end of October but, given the amount of leave he had built up, especially over the last two years, his last working day would be September 23. He says he hopes to brief his successor in late September. He adds that he is unable to attend the Executive meeting on September 8.

September 12 2011:

Sir Bruce writes to PS/First Minister and PS/Deputy First Minister. The ‘issue’ is that the Environment Minister has written to the First and Deputy First Minister on September 2 raising issues in relation to the process for the appointment of the Head of the Civil Service.

Sir Bruce includes the letter and also a proposed draft response. He writes: “This is based on the lines to take submitted by Stephen Grimason on 1 August 2011 ahead of the commencement of the competition, which were agreed by Ministers.”

He continues: “There is an oral Assembly question on the list for answer on 20 September 2011 tabled by Dr Alasdair McDonnell about the HOCS appointment process. Given this and the US travel plans, it would make sense to seek to respond to the DOE Minister after 20 September.”

The letter from Environment Minister Alex Attwood is included. He has asked the OFMDFM Ministers to review their decision not to appoint by way of public competition on the following grounds – he says a public competition would attract a higher level of public confidence, he says it may attract a wider field of applicants and he added that if an external candidate was successful this would “create the opportunity to bring fresh perspectives and a visibly different leadership to the civil service.” He also argues that “best practice” would support an open competition.

Mr Attwood concludes: “It seems to me not desirable that there is a more open competition for the appointment of, say, the current Lord Chief Justice or Chief Constable of the PSNI, than has been agreed by you for the appointment of the Head of the Civil Service.”

He says he awaits an early reply.

The proposed reply from Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness states that they are firmly of the view that the postholder needs to have both a thorough understanding of the work of the Executive and the Departments and direct experience of working in this environment.

It continues: “It is also very important that, in addition to having full confidence in both the experience and ability of the postholder, we are confident that we can work with the person appointed.

“For these reasons the process has been an internal competition, inviting applications from suitably qualified candidate within the NICS who possess the revelant skills and experience, followed by interview by an external recruitment panel with considerable experience of recruiting to the highest level of the Civil Service and the wider public and private sectors. We will then consider the panel’s recommendations.”

It is not confirmed whether or not this draft letter was sent by the Ministers.

September 13th, 2011:

Letter from Derek Baker to Sammy Wilson and the First and Deputy First Ministers. The ‘issue’ is listed as being “correspondence from Alex Attwood concerning the decision to appoint the next Head of the Civil Service by way of an internal promotion competition”. It also states that interviews for the post are scheduled for the week commencing September 19.

Under ‘other presentational issues’ Mr Baker writes: “This is a very high profile post and there will be media interest both in the outcome and the process for selection that has been adopted”.

He recommends that the First and Deputy First Minister reply to Mr Attwood using the attached draft.

Mr Baker states that Mr Attwood wrote to the First Ministers on September 2 asking them to review the decision to appoint by means of an internal promotion and he wrote again on September 13 asking that interview for the post should be deferred pending a discussion about the subject at the next Executive meeting on September 22.

In his letter, Mr Baker writes that applications have been invited from existing permanent secretaries and those of “analogous grade” in the NI Civil Service.

He also says: “The rationale for an internal promotion competition is the need for the postholders to have an intimate knowledge and experience of the workings of the machinery of government. The First Minister and deputy First Minister will take the final selection because of the need for the postholder to have a very close working relationship with the First Minister and deputy First Minister. As an internal promotion competition this process is not subject to the requirements of the Civil Service Commissioners’ Recruitment Code.”

Under the title ‘Advice’, Mr Baker writes: “The First Minister and deputy First Minister have been closely involved in all the decisions regarding the process for appointing Sir Bruce Robinson’s successor. The selection process is now well advance, with interviews scheduled for 19 September 2011. Any deferral of these interviews at such short notice would be unfortunate for the candidates and would delay the identification of a replacement for Sir Bruce Robinson, who has already indicated that his final day in the office will effectively be 23 September.

“I recommend that the First Minister and deputy First Minister should reply to Mr Attwood along the lines of the attached draft minute, which explains the rationale for the selection process and indicates that they are content for the competition to proceed as planned.”

The draft reply to Mr Attwood is attached.

September 16 2011:

Letter from the First and deputy First Minister to the Minister of the Environment. They say they have “given careful thought to the processes to be used for this critical appointment and have agreed on an internal competition because of the need for the postholder to have intimate knowledge and experience of the workings of the machinery of government. Our own role in the selection process stems from the requirement for the postholder to enjoy a close working relationship with us.” It concludes: “Any further delay would not be helpful and we believe it important to complete the selection process as scheduled.”

September 22 2011:

Letter from Derek Baker to Sir Bruce Robinson. The issue is a letter from Brenda McLaughlin (dated August 26) to Sir Bruce recording the concerns of the Civil Service Commissioners in relation to the arrangements for the appointment of his successor. He recommends a draft reply.

Mr Baker says that Ms McLaughlin’s letter “underlines the Commissioners’ commitment to promoting the Merit Principle and, whilst acknowledging that internal competitions fall outside their remit, seeks an assurance that NICS shares this commitment”.

A copy of the letter from Brenda McLaughlin is included. This was written after a meeting with Sir Bruce on August 11. In this she states: “We acknowledge that it is a matter for you to determine if competitions are to be internal or external as this falls within your responsibilities for the management and control of the organisation.

“That said, it has always been the Commissioners’ understanding that the Merit Principle is equally applied during internal competitions. The selection and appointment process you have outlined to us in relation to the appointment of your successor suggests that this may not be the case on this occasion. Commissioners were surprised and disappointed at this decision.

“The process, as you have outlined, would appear to be an amalgam of the usual NICS recruitment/promotion process with some aspects of the public appointment process. As a result, there will be a restricted field of applicants in the first instance and final decisions on the appointment will be made by Ministers.

“In line with our statutory duties, Commissioners remain fully committed to promoting the Merit Principle, both in spirit and in practice, and we would hope to receive an assurance from you that this continues to be a goal that is shared with and by the NICS.

“As you know, a critical aspect of our revised approach to audit involves working in partnership towards improvement in recruitment policy and practices. This will require genuine partnership and engagement on both sides.

“During our discussion, we reflected on the statutory and other equality obligations placed on employers and the need to consider the guidance on this produced by the Equality Commission (ECNI). If you have not already done so, Commissioners would recommend that you take a view from ECNI on your proposals for this competition.”

She continued: “During our meeting, we reflected on the importance of continuing to ensure that individual appointments to the NICS are made on the basis of merit, free from personal or political partiality.

“This is important in order that the public, Ministers and the NICS can have confidence in the recruitment process and be reassured that the appointees may serve Ministers of different political backgrounds.”

September 23 2011:

Sir Bruce writes to Ms McLaughlin to defend an internal competition for the post. This includes the “need for both Ministers to enjoy a very close working relationship with the postholder in the unique environment of OFMDFM.”

He continues: “You can be assured that the NICS remains fully committed to promoting the Merit Principle, and I am sure that my successor and other NICS colleagues will ensure that the close working relationships that exist between the NICS and the Commissioners are maintained, particularly as you develop your revised approach to audit.”

And concludes: “In view of my imminent departure from my present post it is unlikely that I will have the opportunity to discuss these matters further with you but I am sure that my successor will wish to engage with you in due course on the various issues raised in your letter.”

August 25 2011:

Letter from Bob Collins, Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, to Sir Bruce.

He writes: “At its meeting yesterday, the Commission expressed its concern that the proposed arrangements seem to be confined to an internal competition within the existing Permanent Secretary group.

“Such an approach has a number of consequences. It is a departure from the practice that has obtained in a number of previous appointments to this position – a practice that had seemed to be well established.

“By definition, the internal competition precludes the possibility of a range of otherwise well qualified candidates being considered for appointment. In particular, it imposes a distinctly unbalanced gender competition particularly unfavourable to women.

“It misses an opportunity to reflect best practice and the spirit of the legislation in offering equality of opportunity to the widest possible group in an appointment of such importance to the public life of Northern Ireland.

“There may not be much that can be done in practical terms in respect of the current process which is well under way. However, the Commission wished that its views should be clearly conveyed to you and to the First Minister and deputy First Minister both to reflect its regret at the approach taken on this occasion and in the expectation that its clearly held position might be taken into account when any comparable arrangements are next being made.

“It also wished to express the strong view that the position adopted in respect of this appointment should not be a precedent for a wider use of internal competitions at senior levels of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.”

September 22 2011:

Derek Baker writes to Sir Bruce Robinson about Bob Collins’ letter. He suggests a draft response.

September 28 2011:

Sir Bruce replies to Mr Collins to say that the First and Deputy First Ministers were closely involved in the decisions about the process to be adopted for this competition.

“An internal competition was deemed appropriate because of the need for the postholder to have extensive experience and intimate knowledge of the workings of the machinery of government, and the involvement of the First Minister and deputy First Minister arises from the need for the postholder to have a very close working relationship with both Ministers in the unique environment of OFMDFM.”

He concludes: “I have noted the various points that you have made about the competition and in particular the Commission’s views in respect of the arrangements that should be adopted for future senior competitions in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. I will ensure that these views are conveyed to Ministers and to my successor.”

September 30 2011:

Sir Bruce writes to the PS of the First and Deputy First Ministers about Mr Collins’ letter, attaching a copy of the letter and his reply.

He states: “The engagement of the Equality Commission on this issue suggests that the Commission may take a keen interest in the process to fill other senior posts in the NICS.”

Sir Bruce said Mr Collins asked that the Commission’s clear views on this matter should be conveyed to the First Minister and deputy First Minister and that they should be taken into account when any comparable arrangements are next being made.

He continues: “In particular, Mr Collins expressed the strong view of the Commission that the position adopted for the HOCS post should not set a precedent for a wider use of internal competitions for senior civil service posts.”