Friday 21 October 2016

Martin Frawley: Warnings went unheeded about our greying civil service

Published 04/10/2013 | 05:00

Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin at a recent Labour gathering
Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin at a recent Labour gathering

TEN years ago, the government was warned that the age profile of the civil service was mounting, which presented serious challenges to the running of the country.

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A 2004 report by the Institute of Public Administration noted at the time that 27pc of civil servants were aged over 50, but warned that this would grow to 47pc by 2014.

It noted that the cohort of civil servants in the 40-to-60 age bracket had increased fourfold in the previous 20 years, while those aged under 30 had declined.

Now we are a almost at 2014 and obviously, the warning has gone unheeded.

The secretary general of the Department of Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt, says that half of civil servants are over 50 years of age and just 4pc are under 30 – an even greyer state of affairs than the IPA predicted 10 years ago.

And the problem is not just confined to the civil service. Last week, when discussing Brendan Howlin's Public Service Recruitment and Appointments Bill in the Dail, Clare Daly said that of the 1,300 employed in Fingal County Council, "not 20 are below the age of 30".

"That situation is replicated in other local authorities and in the public sector. Young people are not being employed, which leads to a gap in knowledge. Workers at the top have left, there is a group in the middle and nobody under 30 years of age in many area of our public services," she said.

The skills that young people possess – not least in terms of social media and IT – as well as their drive and ambition are all being lost.

The problem goes back to the 1970s when there was a massive recruitment of public servants, largely on the back of economic expansion and the growing threat from the Northern Ireland Troubles.

The recession in the 1980s put a sudden halt to that, and a recruitment embargo was introduced in the public service, which saw the 1970s cohort begin to age with no fresh blood coming in at the other end.

When the boom arrived in the 1990s, younger workers were lured to the 'sexier' employments, particularly the IT and 'dotcom' jobs.

A secure, pensionable job in the civil service was not attractive to graduates who had the world at their feet.

By the time the recession came and scrapped most of those jobs, entry into the public service was cut off again by the re-introduction in 2009 of the recruitment and promotion embargo.

In addition, there has been a sustained reduction in public service employment with numbers dropping from 320,000 in 2008 to 292,000 today with plans to cut that to282,000 by 2015.

The AHCPS, which represents senior public servants, has warned that the continuing reduction in public service numbers is "entirely unsustainable".

Dave Thomas, general secretary of the AHCPS, warned that in another 10 years' time, two-thirds of civil servants will be over 50. "Action must be taken now in order to prevent a staffing crisis in the near future," warned Mr Thomas.

The embargo on promotions has also stifled the career path of younger civil servants who now find themselves languishing in lower grades with little prospect of advancement.

The introduction of 10pc lower starting rates for new recruits is also seen as penalising younger workers in favour of older workers.

But there have been efforts to introduce younger blood into the civil service. Promotions, which were traditionally based almost entirely on seniority, are now 50pc based on seniority and 50pc on merit which gives younger civil servants some chance of being fast-tracked up the promotional ladder.

Open recruitment has also helped to attract younger private sector workers into the civil service.

However, such change has little prospect of success while the recruitment embargo remains.

Speaking last week, Paul Reid, assistant secretary in Expenditure and Reform, said that he did not expect "a massive exodus" of staff next year under the Government's latest 'early retirement' offer.

In the midst of such uncertainty, older civil servants will hang on to their jobs.

At the other end, the recruitment embargo will ensure the civil service gets even greyer.

Irish Independent

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