Business Irish

Thursday 27 October 2016

Public sector revolving door is damaging the State

As the economy begins to lift, the lure of massive private sector wages is slowly decimating our pay-capped public service. Growing numbers of top civil servants are being head-hunted and enticed into the commercial sector, leading to fears of a 'brain drain' in government departments, writes Simon Rowe

Simon Rowe

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

Our revolving door facilitates the movement of many well-regarded executives between the public and private sector. These include, Brian Cowen
Our revolving door facilitates the movement of many well-regarded executives between the public and private sector. These include, Brian Cowen
John Corrigan
John Moran
Michael Somers

It's 'revolving door' time again as the private sector bags yet another former top Irish public servant.

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This time, it's the turn of former secretary-general of the Department of Finance, John Moran, who has been snapped up as a consultant to car-hailing giant Uber and Japanese banking giant Nomura.

The former Finance chief quit his top civil service post last May after just two years in the role, during which time he was on secondment from the Central Bank.

Now, after a suitable post-public-sector 'cooling-off period', Moran is back with a bang.

A lawyer by training and a former investment banker by profession, the Limerick-born deal-maker is celebrating this week's news that Uber is creating an extra 300 jobs and investing €4m in a new customer-support hub in his native city.

In July, when news of Uber's arrival in Limerick first broke, Moran posted an article on his LinkedIn page entitled 'The Uber has Landed'. He wrote: "Congrats to all and a broad Limerick welcome to Team Uber. Team Limerick in its broadest and national sense has been quietly and effectively working behind the scenes."

Welcoming Uber's disruptive technology to Ireland, Moran added: "Would that some of our other European governments and cities were less protective of an outdated status quo."

Moran's ability to navigate the corridors of power in Ireland and Brussels is no doubt seen as a major asset by Uber chiefs - especially at a time when it is facing regulatory battles across Europe and the firm has just lost its Irish-born policy chief in Europe, Mark MacGann, who last week quit after just a year in the role.

But the 'revolving door' phenomenon. whereby former politicians and senior civil servants cash in their chips and take big-paying corporate posts, is nothing new.

Another top-ranking public servant lured from the state sector to the private sector is former National Treasury Management Agency boss John Corrigan, who was appointed chairman of Ireland's biggest stockbroking firm, Davy.

Corrigan's predecessor, Michael Somers, also took the well-trodden path from the pay-capped public sector to the profitable private sector when he became chairman of Davy's arch rival Goodbody in 2011, two years after leaving the NTMA with 48 years of public service under his belt. Since then, Somers has been appointed deputy chairman at AIB and serves on the boards of Kerry financial services company Fexco and insurance brokerage Willis Group Holdings.

Fiona Muldoon, the combative Director of Credit Institutions, stepped down from the Central Bank last year. She subsequently joined the boards of Bank of Ireland and insurer FBD. When FBD blew up, she was appointed as the listed insurer's CEO.

"A pay cheque" was the big attraction, she told the Sunday Independent earlier this year. "I am glad to be back in the private sector," she said. "I am a private-sector type of person. The odd move, for me, was into the public sector."

Nama has also seen a number of high-profile moves to the private sector. The state agency's top property executive John Mulcahy - a former head of JonesLangLaSalle - retired last year. He joined the board of Niall Gaffney's property investment group IPUT, the Oakwood-backed property group Targeted Investment Opportunities. He has also advised Denis O'Brien on property as well.

In the space of a 12-month period, Nama lost three senior asset managers to the private commercial-property sector. Senior asset-recovery manager Paul Hennigan left Nama to take up a position with Prime London Partners in the UK. Prior to his departure, Hennigan had been responsible for the management and disposal of the portfolio belonging to Derek Quinlan, amongst others.

Senior asset manager Ali Rohan, who had worked on the management of Sean Mulryan's Ballymore loan book, was headhunted by the US property investment giant Kennedy Wilson.

Two months previously, Nama lost the services of portfolio manager Kevin Nowlan when he decided to return to his family firm, WK Nowlan, to take up the role of CEO, later heading up Hibernia REIT. An exodus of top executives from Nama in 2013 prompted calls for mandatory 'cooling-off periods' for employees who quit the civil service or state agencies to take up roles in the private sector.

At the time, Fianna Fail finance spokesman Michael McGrath expressed his "serious concern" about the number of senior executives who were leaving the agency.

"There are people holding senior positions in Nama moving into the private sector seamlessly to positions which certainly have a cultural relationship with Nama," he said.

"It's understandable that there would be mobility between Nama and the private sector, but I think that given the vast scale of Nama's work and its importance to the economy, it is essential that there would be a cooling-off period for people holding senior positions."

Nama responded by increased the restrictions it places on employees who leave to take up positions with private firms that might have an interest in acquiring Nama-controlled assets and loans. There is no suggestion of any impropriety on the part of any former Nama employee who left to take up a role in the private sector.

Under the revised rules, any employee leaving Nama is forbidden from assisting their new employer in any transaction with which they might have "participated directly or substantially" in the course of their employment with Nama, and for which they could be "in possession of confidential information as a result".

The prohibition on former Nama employees from providing such assistance applies for periods of between three and six months, depending on the specific circumstances of the transaction.

However, Department of Finance officials are keen to point out that all past and present employees of Nama were already subject to the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and the NTMA and Nama Acts, which prohibited them from disclosing any of the confidential information they had handled at the agency.

A roll call of well-known Irish figures who made the leap reveals that there is life after politics - and a lucrative one at that.

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen joined the board of the Denis O'Brien-backed Topaz last year. Conor Lenihan, the former minister of state for Science, Technology and Innovation, landed a high-flying role working with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Another former government minister coining it in the private sector is Dick Roche. The former Minister for European Affairs has earned €300,000 in the past year from lobbying work in Brussels for Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and business consultants Deloitte.

Roche's company The Skill Set "provides strategic advice to companies and organisations wanting to improve relations with EU institutions and with the agencies of EU member Governments".

Perhaps the biggest driver behind the 'revolving-door' phenomenon in the public sector in recent years has been pay caps.

Pay caps on senior public posts led to a brain drain in the public sector, whereby senior civil servants with vast experience and expertise left to earn multiples of that amount in the private sector once the economy started to lift.

"Senior public servants are increasingly tempted by high salaries offered by the likes of large multinational companies operating in Ireland," said Ciaran Rohan, general secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants.

"It is a competitive market out there, particularly when the Government is competing in the marketplace for talent. In order to retain people with the right skills, the civil service needs to be resourced in the right way," he said.

The problem goes much deeper than that, however.

In his parting shot to the Public Accounts Committee in May 2014, John Moran spoke of the need for major reforms at the Department of Finance.

"I would not be truthful if I did not confess to a very considerable degree of reluctance myself at taking on the task and the reputational risks of same, back in 2012.

"More worryingly, for you as the Public Accounts Committee and for us as a management team, hiring discussions during 2012 and early 2013 shared these same reputational risk concerns.

"The department and even the broader public sector had gone from being a 'go-to place' to work to being a place people preferred to avoid."

His hard-hitting remarks got the Government's attention. The 'revolving door' phenomenon has now taken a new twist, with news that private-sector secondments are being offered to staff from government departments and agencies to work in financial services firms.

Secondments are offered to staff in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Finance as well as Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. A scheme is already in place in Foreign Affairs to allow staff to take a secondment to the aircraft-leasing company Avolon.

"Relevant departments and agencies will explore the possibility of appropriate private-sector secondments both in Ireland and overseas to support the objectives of the International Financial Services Sector 2015-2020 strategy," states the policy document.

It does appear that Ireland's public sector may have swapped revolving doors for musical chairs.

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