Without accountability we will be cursed with politics of ineptitude
Published 12/01/2016 | 02:30
Prior to the last general election, such had been the catastrophic failure of our political system, the civil service and vital State institutions, every party manifesto promised radical political and administrative reform.
Sensing the public outrage at the incompetence and betrayal of trust by senior officials and politicians, there were elaborate commitments to "a new way of doing politics", "scorecards" to hold ministers to account, and, in the Coalition's Programme for Government, a pledge to close the "huge accountability gap" in our systems of governance.
As early evidence of its resolve to implement the needed reforms, the Government removed responsibility for reform from the Department of Finance, itself needing root-and-branch reform, and assigned the task to the newly created Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER).
This administrative innovation has been successful in controlling costs and implementing many reforms but, for all the progress made, the job is far from finished. It is imperative, therefore, that a senior ministry focused on reform be retained when a new government is being formed.
The most crucial piece of unfinished business has been the failure to crack the "huge accountability gap", defined in his own inimitable style by Pat Rabbitte at the Burren Law School in 2010: "The system of accountability we pretend to have is grounded in a lie, enabling civil servants to hide behind the skirts of ministers and ministers to avoid responsibility."
The eminent political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, says that the three pillars of a functioning democracy are technocratic competence, the rule of law and accountability. Deficiencies in all three explain how things went so badly wrong, with "catastrophic consequences for many thousands of our people" (Taoiseach Enda Kenny), but none was more destructive than the "huge accountability gap", our dysfunctional systems of governance.
Despite sustained effort by the DPER since 2011 to effectively tackle this absolutely core issue, for example with an Independent Expert Panel on Accountability and several attempts to install a grown-up system of performance management, resistance to these efforts has left us where we started, with a largely unaccountable civil service and political system.
Just one indicator of the scale of the challenge is the recent revelation that the performance of a mere 1pc of 30,000 assessed civil servants was deemed "unsatisfactory". The other 99pc-plus received an automatic pay increment, as did another 40pc of officials who were not even assessed.
Now that the relatively boring topic of political and public service reform has been driven off the front pages by promises of "more money in people's pockets" and all kinds of other goodies, it cannot be assumed that the next government will continue the work of the DPER, most especially in tackling the enduring accountability gap and associated culture of impunity.
Should the new government be up for it, the steps that need to be taken include:
1: Replace the 1924 Ministers and Secretaries Act, the target of Mr Rabbitte's withering criticism, which conflates the respective responsibilities of Ministers and Secretaries General, such that neither can be held personally accountable for anything.
2. Establish a credible Accountability Board. The Board established last year to hold Secretaries General to account, which in the DPER's own terms ought to involve "external scrutiny with the requirement to justify and explain… with the implication of consequences arising", is composed of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for the DPER, their respective Secretaries General, a fourth Secretary General, and the Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners - that is a total of eight insiders, plus four external people.
3. Provide external boards for each department, the kind of body, for example, that is in place to oversee implementation of the recommendations of the devastating Toland Review of the Department of Justice and Equality. Such a structure is badly needed in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, to name but one.
4. Starting at the very top, assign an "unsatisfactory" rating to managers, right down the chain of command, who either don't carry out staff performance reviews or who rate 100pc of their staff as wonderful. People manage others as they are managed.
5. Establish proper strategic management disciplines. Good governance starts with a long-range vision and associated strategic and operational goals; only then is it clear what you are accountable for.
Recent crises in housing, flood management and health ("There is no vision for the health service" - HSE CEO, Tony O'Brien) reveal once again the lack of strategic planning. Both these and other chronic problems, like the glaring deficiencies in An Garda Síochána set out in the recent Inspectorate's report, highlight pervasive failures in strategy implementation. Earlier reports were not implemented.
6. Delegate to all regulators - of policing, spatial planning, waste management, financial institutions, etc - the powers of "invasive scrutiny and effective sanctions", as it was expressed by the former finance regulator Matthew Elderfield. The problem is that in most sectors the underpinning legislation enables the government to determine what should, and should not, be investigated or pursued through the courts. This power is open to abuse by ministers if they are intent on covering up politically awkward issues.
7. Use the probationary period for the large intake of new public servants to weed out those who don't meet tough-minded criteria for securing permanent, pensionable jobs. Otherwise they will learn from the 'hidden curriculum' how to 'work the system'.
Unless the "huge accountability gap", which was a root cause of the disastrous economic collapse and its terrible, continuing social consequences, is adequately addressed by the next government, then, as sure as night follows day, we are destined to suffer the same fate again.
Eddie Molloy is a management consultant