News Brendan Keenan

Saturday 30 August 2014

Mandarins lack skills to drive reforms in 'bijou' bureaucracy

The public service here is small and expensive and any shake-up, like in Scandinavian countries, will take time

Published 23/06/2013 | 05:00

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BE under no illusions about the challenge the Government set itself with its approach to public sector costs: shrink an already small public service, whose performance was widely regarded as sub-standard, while improving those standards.

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In practice, this may well depend on the state of the public finances at the time – 2018 being the favoured date. In principle, it enshrines the status of the Irish public service as small and expensive.

This is especially so given government vagueness on the idea that those now starting on lower salaries will eventually enjoy the generous, by international and domestic standards, incomes of their existing colleagues.

The shrinkage is dramatic, from 320,000 in 2010 to 280,000 by 2015. The problems created by guaranteed redundancy for those who sought it have been exacerbated by the simultaneous bans on recruitment – despite our own and others' experience that such embargoes are not a good idea.

There is already a worrying risk of a collapse of the hybrid public/private health service, both financially and practically. Such systems have failed in other countries before, under less pressures than those facing the Irish system.

Elsewhere, the danger is just worse services, with less capital equipment than is needed for first-class services, and low staffing levels leading to longer delays and lower morale than is already depressingly the case.

It is not clear what might happen if public services in general, and health in particular, became unfit for purpose. That phrase provided the title for a recent report from the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) on the changes so far in this great undertaking.

The IPA doesn't go in for ringing declarations and one will not detect any air of crisis in the report. The IPA has to play a long game since, to the casual observer, little has changed in Irish pubic administration in the 55 years that the IPA has been analysing it, and "developing" its practitioners.

Less casual observation might suggest that is unfair. But change is so slow that the world has moved on by the time the public sector catches up; so it often appears not to have changed at all.

One of the most valuable things in the report – at least in terms of the work involved – is the comparisons with what is going on elsewhere. The Dutch and Swedes no longer have public sector workers as a separate class. Their sense of equality, among other things, has persuaded them to apply the same terms and conditions to all employees.

As Irish government workers increasingly become a class apart, pressure to do something similar here may grow. But it will be a very slow process.

What is interesting, and rarely acknowledged, is that the most socially progressive EU countries are the ones that have made the biggest changes to their public sectors.

One change here, which is also not widely acknowledged, is that we now have a Senior Public Service (SPS), formally distinct from the rest. On past form, while the rest may be regarded as a class of their own, this group could become a nomenklatura – or, as Soviet jokes used to have it, a Kompressor Klass.

The idea is to have the SPS drive a public service which, says the report, can do, not just more with less, but "better with less". That will require a level of management expertise that has been lacking among senior officials in the past and, it would seem, has a long way to go in the present.

Doing better with less becomes even more of a challenge given the union opposition to "outsourcing". The new Nordic model sees the role of the public sector, not so much in providing goods and services, but in making sure that those who do provide them meet agreed standards, both for services and their staffs.

The traditional civil service has been bad at this. Those that are best "tend to retain relatively few numbers of very capable people with distinct skill sets," the report says. One could hardly get a better description of what a sucessful small, expensive public service would have to be like.

There is one other thing. Having pointed out that policy development is hardly even included in the Irish reform plan, the IPA raises the issue of civil servants being able to "speak truth to power" – to challenge ministerial policies that do not have a sound base in evidence.

This is precisely what seems not to have happened during the credit bubble. Irish ministers often appear to have only two modes: slavishly following what the civil servants tell them, or doing their own thing irrespective of the advice and evidence. That, too, will have to change.

Irish Independent

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