Public service pay - why the piper must always call the tune
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
For those whose pay and pensions are funded by the taxpayer, the story of mothers, fathers and their dead babies in Portlaoise Hospital provides a kind of salutary tale for our times.
And there is a kind of irony that the new round of national pay talks got under way only a few days after a report made us all stop and think, who is really responsible even when it comes to matters of life and death in our hospitals?
For surely the failure in Portlaoise was in its truest sense a failure in public service.
The backdrop to this unfortunate saga has been well aired over the past week - and at the end of it all one overwhelming question needs to be answered. Why did those staff who were charged with providing a proper health service and care to the public not do their jobs properly?
It's unfortunate that despite the many words spoken and the extensive report into all that happened - and all that is alleged to have happened - there are still too many unanswered questions hanging in the air.
The Hiqa findings, while admirable in many ways, have one central weakness - they do not identify those who failed to monitor necessary life-protecting checks and balances.
The fact that Hiqa had to pull its punches when it came to naming names sums up a central quandary when trying to measure performance in the public service. And performance and pay should always be closely interlinked. However, there is another side to this whole debate. Public servants point out that applying private sector norms to those whose work is often bedevilled by the whims and self-interest of politicians is simply unfair. And we all know that whether it be the mooted closure of a hospital - or the phasing down of certain services - health policy is one of those areas riddled with political interference.
How often have hospital services been kept functioning in a particular constituency, even when patient care would be better served by a more centralised service? Right up to recent times, Portlaoise Hospital has been the subject of political wrangling as to its status and what facilities it should provide. The reality is that if the Government of the day determines things should be done a certain way, and if a public servant has the temerity to say "no minister'', he or she, career-wise, could be on a pathway to nowhere.
In any case, it can never be forgotten that the politicians in power are, for good or ill, the voice of the people. At the end of the day, it is their views which must prevail.
For this reason, most attempts introduced over the years to measure the performance of public servants usually start off with much fanfare, but then fizzle out, and come to nought. The reality is that a multiplicity of extraneous factors can affect how they do their job. Getting a grip on things can be difficult; all too often matters seem to just toddle along. Even the Hiqa report and its unwillingness to bite the bullet of individual responsibility - even when matters of life and death are involved - surely speaks volumes.
And yet for an economy like Ireland, indebted for all those billions, there is a frustration that there is something of a mass collective about our 300,000 public servants. It too often frustrates and penalises any kind of go-it-alone individualism, while at the same time protecting under-performance, except of the most extreme kind. But maybe this conundrum is in one sense almost insoluble. Collectivism has to remain an underlying ethic. Even the best and the brightest have no option but to do as their political masters dictate, and execute what is determined as "Government policy'' in a given area.
And so now it has come round once again as how we are going to pay our public service going forward. The inevitable ritualism of it all will be played out in the coming weeks, with Jack O'Connor et al putting forward the case that they have certainly done their bit for Ireland during the dark days.
On the other side is a Government looking increasingly fidgety as general election times looms closer. The politicians know that when it comes to public servants, there are still an awful lot of them. Add in their families, and there are marginal seats to be won and lost. Labour TDs have their nightmares over the possibility of a possible wipeout in the election, and there is huge temptation to be over-accommodating to their soulmates in the trade unions. And how steely is the resolve in Fine Gael to hold the line, given that many of their TDs will also be facing into an electoral cliff?
In the swingalong times, benchmarking was famously described by one union official as "an ATM for public servants''. For a few years, it sure was bliss for those in that sector. But then one fateful night we were told those very same ATMs would run out of cash the following morning - unless we went with the begging bowl to Europe.
If in the current round of talks, short-term foolishness once again rules the roost, it might be an all-too grim tale of back to the future.