Senior civil servants 'used ministers like glove puppets'
Published 13/10/2011 | 05:00
THE chairman of a prominent Dail committee yesterday accused senior civil servants of using ministers like "glove puppets".
Public Accounts Committee chief John McGuinness gave a damning account of public-sector reform to an audience of secretaries general and high-ranking government officials.
He also claimed that senior civil servants who appear before his Dail committee to be quizzed about their spending "barely disguise their contempt for the process".
The former junior minister said claims he heard on radio recently that senior public servants would not stand up to ministers because their career prospects might suffer were "nonsense".
"In fact, many ministers did not stand up to the public service," said Mr McGuinness, at the Institute of Public Administration conference.
"They allowed themselves to become the glove puppets of senior civil servants, taking best advice, reading from scripts prepared by their officials and generally acting like press officers for their departments.
"The unwritten contract between politicians and public servants was, 'We will look after you if you don't bother us'. It was a Faustian pact."
He said the civil servants had no difficulty keeping the few ministers who wanted to make a difference "under control" because they enjoyed the protection of "status" and "powerful unions".
As a result, he said, we now had three senior international public servants in our country telling us what to do.
He gave many examples of poor spending, including:
•Computer systems at the Central Statistics Office and Garda Fingerprinting Service that are not working properly.
•The HSE does not have a proper financial management system despite having a budget of €14bn.
•€5bn goes to local authorities who have "quietly done all they can to prevent the Comptroller and Auditor General investigating how it is spent".
He said no civil servant was in danger of losing their job and questioned "the dynamic this takes out of the workplace".
Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, spoke of the need to get "maximum bang for our limited bucks", but gave little detail on progress on reforms.
The audience included Martin Frazer, secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach, and Niamh O'Donoghue, secretary general at the Department of Social Protection.