Wednesday 25 April 2018

Dan O'Brien: Government has to bite bullet on redundancies

IT’S NO JOKE: Brendan Howlin the Minister for Public expenditure. Photo: Tom Burke
IT’S NO JOKE: Brendan Howlin the Minister for Public expenditure. Photo: Tom Burke
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Bureaucracy has a bad name almost everywhere. It all too frequently deserves the maligning it gets. But an efficient bureaucracy is indispensable in any system of government.

Politicians -- be they of the right, the left or the centre -- have no chance of delivering election promises without good design and effective implementation of policy by those trained in the arts of public administration and management.

And the need for a well-functioning public service in general, and civil service in particular, is becoming ever more important as the size and scope of what governments do increases and the rate of change in the domestic and international environments accelerates.

For a small country deeply embedded in a globalised economy and a European polity, the need for speed, adaptability and nimbleness in how government functions is paramount.

For a country whose political system is designed to be even more short-termist and reactive than most other democracies, the need for an alert, informed, open and pro-active system of public administration to offset these ill-effects is simply an imperative.

Alas, too few senior public servants in recent times could be described as alert, informed, open and pro-active. Too many were asleep at the wheel during the boom/ bubble.

Complacency, hubris and fear of bearing unpalatable news to spendthrift politicians were other reasons for inaction in the good times.

It is for this reason that the technocrat class deserves no small share of the blame for the current predicament: it did too little to prevent the credit bubble from inflating; it did almost nothing to prepare for the real risk of a hard landing if that bubble burst; and it failed to drive change that would have left the country on a more solid foundation to face the long-term future.

But since the crash things have unquestionably changed. Many in the current Government and among the cadre of senior public servants have thought seriously about the deficiencies in the system and have attempted to remedy them.

Over the past 10 days, the minister charged with driving reform, Brendan Howlin, has been publicly taking stock of efforts and setting out an agenda for further change out to 2016 and beyond.

The Coalition has done far more than any of its predecessors, probably since the State's foundation, in reforming the public sector. And while a cynic might say that to outperform others who have done so little is not much to crow about when there are so few votes in what Howlin is doing, it would be very unfair not to acknowledge that he has been brave in what he has done.

The verifiable achievements documented in last week's progress report on reform include increased flexibility across the sector, more targeted use of resources, the seeking of more expert input, moves towards better accountability structures and clearer lines of responsibility, greater and better use of information technology, smarter procurement practices, less duplication, more resort to outsourcing, continued modernisation of the budgeting process and enhancing transparency by making more input and output data available.

In concrete terms, all this has meant that more has been delivered with less. Despite declines in the numbers of public sector workers and smaller budgets, more children and young people are being educated, more patients are being treated in the public health system and more welfare benefits are being dispensed.

Although Howlin last week over-egged his own pudding by making unsubstantiated claims to having done more than any other government in Europe, there have been substantive improvements.

But given the scale of the changes needed, has the Government been ambitious enough? The answer almost from the beginning of the Coalition's term has been No.

Among the biggest questions has been the capacity of the system to overcome its "implementation deficit disorder". There are an almost unlimited range of issues in this regard, but a central one has been balance between protection for workers and the freedom of managers to manage.

In the private sector, the broad legislative and regulatory balance between the rights of employees and employers is appropriate. That includes the difficult issue of redundancy.

No large private sector organisation could effectively adapt to the inevitability of change if it was forbidden from deploying the unpleasant last resort of letting staff go when circumstances change.

Despite other countries in Europe recognising that 100 per cent job security for one group in society is neither efficient nor equitable, and have stopped giving public sector workers such guarantees, the Government was unwilling, and remains unwilling, to bite this bullet.

This has been perhaps the the greatest failings of the Coalition's reform plan. The result is that all the talk about culling quangos and rationalising State agencies -- including those set up during the bubble era to buy off interest groups -- is largely meaningless because all those employed in the entity being closed or merged have to be shoe-horned into another entity, often reducing its effectiveness rather than improving it.

It has also meant that people whose abilities are not needed are kept on the public payroll, while the Government has used early retirement of often highly skilled workers and a freeze on recruitment to bring total numbers down (and it has done this while stressing, as Howlin did again last week, that the public sector has never been bloated in terms of the numbers employed relative to peer countries and that demand on public services has been rising rapidly).

All that said, Howlin deserves credit for what he has achieved and cannot be blamed for the wider unwillingness of the Government to be more radical.

Moreover, it should be underscored that the pro-reform elements in the Government and among the more reflective and self-critical public servants continue to face stubborn resistance from those who want to keep things cosy and -- hard though it may be to believe -- from those who still believe that little is fundamentally wrong with the system.

While the reformists have had more wins in recent times, it is still far from certain that the gains to date will be maintained when and if budgetary pressures ease. It is even less certain that the reforms have made the system durably more alert, informed, open and pro-active.

Irish Independent

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