The uphill battles of a Stormont regulator

Ignored by Government / Interview - Trevor Birney

The Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland has revealed the struggles of regulation in Northern Ireland, with battles to demonstrate her independence and the Head of the Civil Service who has refused to meet her.

Felicity Huston, who steps down from the role at the end of the month after six years in office, says Sir Bruce Robinson had ignored repeated requests from her for an official meeting over the past three years.

In an interview with The Detail, she discloses that her successor’s job description and hours were drawn up without reference to her experience in post and she criticises a recruitment culture which fills public bodies predominantly with “stale, pale males”, who provide civil servants with a mirror image of themselves, rather than personalities who challenge them.

Asked about her relationship with Sir Bruce – who last week was criticised for his handling of the Paul Priestly affair – Mrs Huston said: “I haven’t actually seen Bruce officially for almost three years.

“I asked to see him when he was first appointed and we met and I’ve asked, or suggested, frequently since then that we should meet to talk about things, like I did with his predecessor, but that meeting hasn’t taken place which is a bit of a shame.”

Asked why she thought her approaches had been ignored, Mrs Huston said: “I don’t know why we haven’t met, that’s something you’d have to ask Bruce because I don’t understand it.”

She also maintained that contacts between herself and Sir Bruce were crucial to the smooth running of the public appointments system in Northern Ireland.

“He is the Head of the Civil Service, but he is also, as Permanent Secretary, head of the department that has policy responsibility for public appointments.

“It’s also his two bosses, the First and deputy First minister who appoint the Commissioner for Public Appointments, so it is a close relationship, or is should be a close working relationship. It should be a relationship were one can speak quite frankly and discuss issues about his own department, but also systemic issues right across the Civil Service.”

Felicity Huston hasn't officially met Bruce Robinson in three years

Felicity Huston hasn't officially met Bruce Robinson in three years

Mrs Huston has talked publicly before about her difficulty asserting the independence of her role, with her first having been placed in offices in Castle Buildings – the heart of the Civil Service – before she took up residence in a temporary building beside Dundonald House.

In today’s interview, she says she believes the Civil Service struggles with the concept of independence and transparency in the public sector.

“I do at least have premises outside the NI Civil Service now, but I don’t have my own independent budget, these are all indicators of independence, internationally recognised indicators of independence and this office doesn’t have them.”

“One would imagine that the Commissioner for Public Appointments would have his or her own staff, I don’t, mine are still civil servants, employed by the office of the first and deputy first minister and although the staff themselves are excellent and I’ve been very lucky with them it does create an impression that I am not functioning in an independent way because the staff aren’t my own.”

Mrs Huston later said there had been incredulity within the Civil Service with the queries in the press and wider society about independence such as the NI Water affair.

“I genuinely think the Civil Service couldn’t see what the problem was and I think it reflects further into things in my post, they don’t understand what the difficulty is and why does it matter if your staff are civil servants? I used to have an email address and website that was just an extension of OFM/DFM. They genuinely don’t get it.”

She also queried the OFMDFM’s handling of the appointment of her successor, revealing that she was not consulted about the recruitment of her successor.

“I have had absolutely no contact whatsoever; I got a letter to tell me that they would be advertising the post so at least that was something. But no, contact at all. For a public body that I would have regulation of I would recommend that they would speak to the outgoing chair of a body, or the current chair before they draw up a job specification for a post for a public appointment so that they understand what the post requires.”

Mrs Huston has worked for two days a week as the Public Appointments Commissioner; however the decision has been made by OFMDFM, without any consultation, to reduce the role to one day and a half.

She said: “I don’t know how those conclusions have been reached, so really the best of luck to whoever takes it on because the job has been drawn up without any discussion from the current job holder which is a peculiar way to get on.

“As far as I recall my predecessor said the same thing, she wasn’t spoken to either, so obviously its house style.”

A spokesman for OFMDFM said they were unable to comment at this stage.