Wilson displays leadership quality on public service bonuses

Tue, Sep 15, 2009, 01:00

BELFAST BRIEFING:It is doubtful that top Government officials, many of whom are involved in the day to day running of the North’s economy, will see it as such. But according to a former staff assistant to US president John F Kennedy and a man who has devoted his life to defining leadership qualities, leaders are first and foremost people who get things done.

Dr Dan Fenn, who was a member of the White House staff for three years and vice-chairman of the United State’s tariff commission, believes there are certain qualities that leaders possess.

“They have got to be committed, they have got to believe in something, they have got to be consistent and they have got to be pretty cool,” Fenn states.

The North’s finance minister Sammy Wilson might not qualify on all counts but he is emerging as a minister who can get things done.

Wilson has been in the job less than three months and already he has managed to overhaul the questionable rewards system operated in the public sector.

He previously received a motion of “no confidence” from the Northern Ireland Assembly’s environment committee during his tenure as environment minister, and has come under considerable criticism in the past for encouraging companies to actively discriminate in favour of people from Northern Ireland when it came to recruiting.

On occasions the North’s finance minister might have benefited from adopting another characteristic which Fenn believes strong leaders possess – knowing when to alter course. Or as Fenn puts it himself; “when your horse is dead – dismount”.

But Wilson has in recent weeks demonstrated one essential quality of leadership in Fenn’s book and that is displaying pragmatism.

Wilson walked into the North’s Department of Finance and quickly realised that he needed to make big changes in the way the Civil Service operated particularly in relation to bonuses.

As a result last month he announced that due to the significant pressures on public finances senior civil servants would not receive any bonuses this year.

He also froze senior civil service pay bands and ruled out any additional cost of living increases – saving more than £1.1 million in the process.

Earlier this month he won cross party support from the Executive to ban bonus payments in the wider public sector.

For the first time in the North some senior employees of Government agencies and quangos will no longer receive a fat bonus cheque on top of their already generous salaries unless it is part of a “previous, legally-enforceable contractual entitlement”.

The finance minister’s decision to tackle the issue of public sector bonuses has won him a legion of new fans regardless of their political allegiances in the North.

He has also won praise from the public service union NIPSA, which represents all civil service staff in Northern Ireland including a number of the senior civil servants.

John Corey, the union’s general secretary said it had always opposed the use of performance bonuses in the public service.

But Corey has also warned Wilson that he could have a fight on his hands over major changes to civil service pay arrangements “without any prior consultation with the trade unions”.

How Wilson approaches this could be the real test of his leadership qualities.