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Thursday 28 August 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Same old story at top of civil service -- inside jobs

Fionnan Sheahan

Published 18/04/2011 | 05:00

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'THE civil service never sets up a review, the results of which it cannot determine." The oft-quoted semi-fictitious character from 'Yes, Minister', Sir Humphrey Appleby, beautifully sums up the workings of the mandarins of the civil service.

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And it certainly springs to mind when considering the way three crucial posts in the government apparatus are being filled.

Despite all the baloney about public sector reform, the new Government caved in when it came to thinking outside the box on the way the civil service chiefs were appointed.

It's the same old story at the very top of the civil service: inside jobs.

In the coming weeks, the Government will appoint three key figures in reshaping how the public service operates in this country.

A new secretary general to the Department of the Taoiseach and to the Government will take up office on Merrion Street.

A new post will be created in that department for a second secretary general, specifically charged with looking after the new inner circle of the Cabinet in charge of the economy policy and co-ordinating European Union activities.

And a secretary general will be appointed to the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

These appointments have the potential to set the tone on the Government's attitude to genuine reform of the public sector.

The holders of these posts will be expected to drive the change in attitude and application in the civil service and have a knock-on effect in the wider public sector.

Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin changed the way most senior civil servants are appointed last month.

Civil servants lost control of the body in charge of deciding who gets these jobs with a chairman and a majority of the members of the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC) coming from outside the public sector.

"This Government is committed to reforming the public sector and this reform must happen from the top down," Mr Howlin said, praising his own initiative.

But there wasn't reform from the "top down".

The Merrion Street mandarins didn't lose control of the appointments at their own level.

Appointments to senior positions in the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, Foreign Affairs and the Revenue Commissioners don't fall under TLAC's remit and are appointed directly by the Government.

This arrangement didn't change under Mr Howlin's reforms.

Ironically, the appointment of the top civil servant to the department in charge of public sector reform will be appointed by existing procedures.

The new chief of Mr Howlin's department will send his CV to Dermot McCarthy, the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach by 5pm this evening.

From there, Mr McCarthy will present a list of potential appointees to Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Cabinet.

Mr McCarthy, the central pillar of the social partnership process over the past decade, will also be pivotal in the appointment of his own successor.

The Government can reject the list and opt to advertise externally.

Fat chance.

The new Coalition also promised to bring in a greater level of outside expertise.

Indeed, this commitment is enshrined in the Programme for Government.

"All appointments at principal officer level and above will be open to external competition and at least one-third of such appointments will be reserved for candidates from outside traditional civil service structures for a five-year period," the agreement between Fine Gael and Labour says.

But these three appointments at the top of the civil service won't be open to external competition.

"The intention is to fill internally," a government spokesman said last night.

Mr Howlin's spokesman said specific posts require "particular knowledge of how the Government functions and it is natural that the Government would want to consider serving officers in that context".

If the same logic was applied elsewhere, Patrick Honohan wouldn't be the governor of the Central Bank, Matthew Elderfield wouldn't be the Financial Regulator, Mike Aynsley wouldn't be chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank and Christoph Mueller wouldn't be the chief executive of Aer Lingus.

By limiting the recruitment process to the existing civil servants, the Government cannot really say they have identified the best people for the jobs -- just the best available in the existing pool.

And anybody who read the Wright Report on the Department of Finance would hardly conclude the pool is the most talented.

The depressing failure to embrace change, to see what else is available, means the Government is accepting the civil servants' view that they are the only ones who can be trusted to run the show.

The quaint notion of a successful chief executive in the private sector or a civil servant based in a foreign country being suited to the role and bringing a fresh outlook and different experience is just too alien a concept.

After all, that would upset the apple cart and that can't be allowed.

A bright new era under a reforming and open Government has dawned -- only for the blinds in Government Buildings to be pulled down just as quickly.

The so-called 'permanent Government' wins out yet again.

Let's leave the last words to Sir Humphrey's mentor, Sir Arnold Robinson: "My dear boy, it's a contradiction in terms: you can either be open or you can have Government."

Irish Independent

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