Croke Park must focus on efficiency
If cost were the only problem in the Irish public sector, at least one would know what to do. But, while the cost per citizen is high by European standards, the quality is often low, by any standards.
Both problems – cost and quality – need to be tackled. In principle, Croke Park has the potential to address both. The main objections to it have been that it has not made sufficient progress on either. The Government's decision to approach the trade unions for a sequel will be taken by some as a tacit admission that more needs to be done.
The target of another €1bn savings over three years is ambitious – representing more than 5pc of the pay bill. But the €8bn which the Government is meant to find in revenues and spending cuts is becoming more elusive, as growth prospects for the next three years fade, and further savings will have to be made.
The Government is, of course, hampered by its promise not to cut core pay. Yet, quite apart from the damage cuts would do to co-operation and industrial peace, there are limits to the loss of income for existing staff and their families which government can seek.
By the same token, any new deal should nail down that the reduced pay and pension rates for new staff are permanent.
Present pay levels are unaffordable and should never have been agreed in the first place. It may not be possible to reverse them fully, but they must be consigned to history.
Aside from that, the new talks will have to concentrate on further reduction in numbers and further reforms to tricky areas like overtime and working arrangements. A critical element compared with the the original agreement will be "targeted" voluntary redundancies, where applications can be refused if there is no obvious over-staffing.
It is easy enough to look at the pay figures on Budget night and see what exactly the Government has achieved.
It is harder to measure efficiency, especially as the demand for health services, and their cost, is rising.
Brendan Howlin and his department have put a lot of effort into collecting and publishing performance data: the next step is to hold those who do not perform to account.