We need to tap the best resource we have in the public sector – people working there – if we're serious about real reform.
People will be galled this weekend to hear yet more news of the largesse of public sector pensions being paid to retired, high earners. And it will not just be private sector workers who will be annoyed at these pension levels – but equally, if not more so, low or mid-ranking public servants.
We need to get real. Any new public sector agreement cannot continue to give validity to the failed policy of grouping all public servants together regardless of pay, work conditions, pensions etc and offering a blanket, catch-all agreement.
It is hard to turn on the TV news or open a newspaper without seeing doorstep interviews with union leaders or snapshots of government officials busily rushing into departments. What has almost become a cyclical event is here again – negotiations on a public sector reform agreement. The now infamous Croke Park Agreement, inherited by the current Government, is due to run out at the end of this year. Discussions and debate about what should replace it are very much under way.
Whilst I'm sure these high-level talks are necessary and useful, if we are serious about genuine public sector reform, there is one crucial ingredient missing. Utilising the workplace intelligence and experience of public employees.
Macro-level talks occur time and time again and broad-brush union votes take place on whether to accept or reject any agreement, but where is the nitty gritty detail? When does that come? Where is the analysis, not sector by sector, but workplace by workplace on what works, what doesn't work, what needs to change, what could be saved, how things could be made more efficient?
There is a wealth of knowledge in every hospital, school, local authority and State office within people who are working there day in and day out. Just take the time to ask them and engage with them. Except nobody ever seems to do that.
The union leader or the department official in Dublin can only bring the issue of reform so far. Reform is not just a buzz-word, it's something which can happen and needs to happen in each and every workplace within the public sector. But it can only happen if it comes from the "ground up" and not just from the "top down".
Many people can recall talking to a friend or a colleague in the public sector who has identified waste or a more efficient way of carrying out a service, delivering for the public and even reducing costs. But all too often, those views are not sought by senior management.
That can't go on. Practical experiences which cannot be bought but are earned through hard work over a number of years or a fresh pair of eyes carrying out a new job must be put to work for the benefit of the country, the taxpayer and an improved public service.
Imagine a health service which regularly asked its nurses, doctors, care assistants, admin staff, to identify improved ways of running the ward, to make suggestions, to feed in their experiences as part of a real reform agenda.
We shouldn't need to imagine. Reform negotiated between national politicians and national union leaders can never be as effective as reform that benefits the users of public services. What's needed is regular engagement with public sector employees at a very local level.
Let's stop hindering ingenuity and innovation by presuming that "leaders know best", be they union leaders or senior government officials. Instead, let's put it up to public sector employees to feed in their suggestions on reform directly to management and have open, ongoing dialogue.
That's what a 21st Century modern workplace needs to look like. That's the culture we need to be promoting. And I have no doubt from the many public sector employees I meet with and talk to, they are bursting with ideas. It's time to listen to these ideas – and not just listen, but act.