Northern Ireland Civil Service Chief Jane Brady: Next decade will be unlike anything before

As in business and industry, the Northern Ireland civil service has gained new agility and post-pandemic skills over the past two years.

We used new ways of working, taking a radical approach where needed. We have learned a lot and are doing better than before to deal with emerging challenges.

You, as business leaders, will be thinking about the consequences of the war in Ukraine; Rising energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated the residual pressure of the pandemic, leaving little room for a break. For us in Northern Ireland, the lack of a functioning executive also presents a unique challenge, and while problems are inevitable, how we respond and transform will always be a conscious decision.

Over the past 27 years of my career, 25 of them have worked in the private sector, either developing high-tech solutions or funding them. The common thread in all of these roles was the use of moments of failure as catalysts for change. It is in this context that I applied for the position of Chief Political Adviser to the Executive and Head of the Civil Service for Northern Ireland.

The best time for differentiated growth is when aggregate growth is low. As in many other organizations, the response of the public service to the pandemic has clearly demonstrated our ability to act proactively and in a timely manner. As the post-COVID world continues to evolve, we have a unique opportunity to set a new direction for our society and economy.

We have long-standing systemic challenges in terms of productivity, health inequalities and achieving zero carbon emissions. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have exacerbated these problems, especially for women, people with disabilities, and people on low incomes. We must take proactive action now to avoid long-term scars that will affect generations.

As a society we are resilient, practical and determined; we can meet this challenge by using the public sector as a key and active force, shaping and guiding change so that this time of massive change benefits all. Within the civil service, we are thus preparing to lead the public sector.

There is a well-established view that government and public sector intervention should be limited to regulating or correcting market failures. While recognizing that policy should be decided by ministers, not civil servants, there is strong and reliable evidence that the public sector works best when it is active, thinks and behaves like an entrepreneur, and invests to achieve results.

The importance of science and technology as a means of active public service cannot be underestimated. Through collaboration and co-design with delivery partners, we will use innovation, science and technology to deliver solutions that power our response. It is imperative that they form the basis of policy development and I am pleased that the recruitment process for the appointment of NICS Chief Technical and Scientific Officer is at an advanced stage.

The economic impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine has left marginalized and disadvantaged groups hardest hit. We know that the economic recovery model must take this into account as we carefully review our policy priorities, noting the need to go beyond traditional GDP growth. The economic recovery has not only speed but also direction, and we have the opportunity to introduce structural changes to develop a more resilient, dynamic and inclusive region.

After the Assembly elections, I interacted with the four political parties that have the right to form a new executive branch to discuss the priorities they will pursue upon their return. While we cannot do everything, the Northern Ireland Public Service will bring our efforts and experience to bear in several key areas.

These will be our missions: cross-cutting, innovative and focused programs of work to tackle some of the toughest challenges we face, increase employability and productivity, green growth and improve life opportunities. Preparations have begun in these areas as we await the formation of a new executive body, laying the groundwork where possible for ministers to decide how to proceed.

Accomplishing our missions will require collaboration, and we are committed to expanding our engagement with delivery partners, including business and industry. The businesses featured in this publication represent cutting-edge firms in their respective industries. In many areas, they set an example from which other organizations, including the public service, can learn. This will help us add value and improve delivery.

It has been 10 months since I took the position of head of the civil service. I was and remain determined to bring energy and new ideas to this role, building on our strengths to deliver better public services. From the very first day I was impressed by the experience of all departments. Together we have overcome difficulties and seized opportunities, and we must continue our vigorous and prompt action.

To support the organization so that we can lead the public sector in this time of transformative change, the Civil Service Renewal Program is being implemented. This will increase our effectiveness in serving the executive and the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that we should reflect the society we serve. This means a modern, innovative and diverse public service capable of meeting the challenges of the future.

The next decade will be unlike any previous one. In the face of serious social, economic and environmental challenges, we have an opportunity to make this decade memorable above all for its achievements. Challenges will continue to come our way, but I am optimistic that we in the Northern Ireland Public Service will be able to solve them because I am very proud of what we have achieved so far.

Jane Brady is the head of the civil service for Northern Ireland.