The Northern Ireland civil service is at a ‘critical crossroads’ and struggling to cope due to additional pressure on staffing levels, according to a report.
Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said nearly 1,500 vacancies remain and sickness levels remain the highest in the UK.
He also expressed concerns about the way civil servants are recruited and called for a transformation of the system.
A total of 268,000 days of absence were recorded at a cost of £ 32.9 million.
Mr Donnelly said that in order to function effectively, departments need to have “the right people in the right place at the right time” and that there has been no “strategic focus” to ensure that is the case.
“High disease level”
The report notes the latest figures which show that on average almost 13 working days are lost due to illness per staff member in Northern Ireland, compared to seven to eight days in other parts of the UK.
“This high level of sickness absence out of a workforce of 22,000 cannot have reduced the strength of the capacity and capacity of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), so looking after the area is clearly a matter of priority, ”the report said.
Staff anxiety, stress and depression accounted for almost 40% of days lost.
The report reveals that 4,000 civil service jobs were lost between 2015 and 2019, mainly thanks to a voluntary exit program.
But the auditor warned that the civil service now faces unprecedented challenges due to welfare reform, Brexit preparations and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Lack of leadership far from appropriate”
Analysis by Enda McClafferty, political correspondent for BBC News NI
There is a glaring vacancy in the public service, which is proving difficult to fill, and it is one that will be the key to resolving the issues exposed by the auditor.
The Northern Ireland civil service is still headless almost three months after the former incumbent, David Sterling, retired.
Three candidates interviewed for the post were deemed unsuitable by the Premier and Deputy Prime Ministers.
But leaving such a vacuum at a time when officials are battling a pandemic and preparing for Brexit is far from appropriate and raises big questions about this recruitment process.
We may end up with an interim head of the civil service – yet another short-term solution to a long-term problem.
The report acknowledges that NICS staff “continued to provide vital services to the people of Northern Ireland under unprecedented difficult circumstances, including preparing for exit from the European Union and responding to the pandemic of Covid-19 ”.
However, he added that NICS “is now at a critical crossroads, struggling to provide ‘usual services'”.
‘No certainty, no leadership’
The auditor’s report revealed that in one year only 19 unsatisfactory performance ratings were recorded out of a workforce of over 22,000 people.
Alison Millar, general secretary of the public service union Nipsa, rejected any suggestion that public servants were under no pressure to act.
She said that a “failure of leadership in the public service” had been a significant problem.
“The officials spent three years without a framework in place,” she said.
“We are now in a situation where there are 43 days left until European release, again we have no certainty about what it is and officials have worked incredibly hard in this Brexit world without leadership. “
Civil service vacancy rates are high, with 1,420 full-time positions remaining vacant.
The report also found that the agency’s staff costs last year fell from almost £ 18million to £ 45.7million.
“500 vacant positions filled”
The Auditor General also found the current recruitment process to be “cumbersome, slow and does not provide sufficient assurance that the right people are in the right positions.”
He noted that appointments were made to ranks rather than specific posts and that “the skills and experience most relevant to the posts are not always tested”.
Stormont’s Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for NICS, said it had recently run an external recruitment drive, helping to fill around 500 vacancies with further appointments planned.
He added that the service recognized the need for “fundamental change” and would build on “progress” made through organizational reform.
“The Audit Office report recognizes that the public service has provided essential services in an environment of unprecedented and challenging circumstances and has made progress in many areas highlighted in this report,” the ministry added.
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