Friday 15 December 2017

Enough waffling, it's time to pick up the pace on reform

It's a year since the Croke Park deal was done, but Nick Webb is dumbfounded by the lack of any real progress

THE Croke Park Agreement was cobbled together in a side room in the GAA headquarters almost exactly a year ago. But what has it achieved?

Well, we've saved €5m by making people in the country's medical laboratories work longer hours. The country is facing a forecast deficit of €12bn this year. These medical lab staff savings will make the same kind of impact as hitting a Challenger tank with a soggy baguette. The problem with Croke Park is that the constant negotiation and endless waffling has bogged it down in trench warfare. What is badly needed is the application of a Dr Marten boot.

"It's self-evident that the deal hasn't been driven since it was agreed and it now has to be a priority and we have to see the results," new Public Sector Reform Minister Brendan Howlin said last week. "I want to see an immediate and comprehensive review of where we are in the Croke Park deal from the departments; what the deficiencies are; and why it has not progressed quicker."

Maybe we should set up a commission that could report back in a year or so?

"If I was Minister for Reform of Public Services, I'd be seriously concerned about both the scope and range of the Croke Park Agreement -- will it really deliver a world-class service? And I'd especially worry about the rate of progress, which to date appears to be about nil," according to Richard Eardley managing director of Hays, one of the country's biggest recruitment firms.

"The ambition of reform should be to provide Ireland with a world-class public sector. World-class businesses have attraction and recruitment strategies that hire the best talent. They have performance management programmes that accelerate the careers of the most capable individuals and turf out those not up to the job. They have clarity and visibility around performance that leave no one in any doubt as to what is required to do well and succeed," according to Eardley.

"The recruitment process into the public sector is, at best, cumbersome; at worst, dysfunctional," he says. "Promotion is still based as much on a time-served principle as on true merit, with little recognition, and therefore incentive, for high performers. And there still appears to be no consequence whatsoever for people who don't perform. This is still a million miles away from world class."

Apart from the changes in the hours kept by lab technicians at various medical laboratories, there are more "highlights", according to the National Implementation Body -- the quango tasked with keeping tabs on the progress of the agreement.

The National Employment Rights Authority -- another quango with 119 staff and a budget of nearly €8m in 2009 -- is chipping in to help clear a backlog of 1,700 employment appeal tribunal cases. It is also helping to process "thousands" of Rights Commissioner claims.

Some 500 staff have been moved from the civil service to the departments of Social Protection and Enterprise and Employment to deal with rising job losses. That's 500 out of a public sector workforce of about 305,000 people. An outdated "time accreditation" system has also been scrapped for some workers which may lead to "an effective increase in working time of over three working days a year in some instances". Another biggie is that people being promoted in the civil service have to have a competitive interview. Wow.

Most of the shouting from the National Implementation Body surrounds the stat that there are now 16,000 fewer people working in the public sector, including 2,000 less in the HSE behemoth. Much of this actually pre-dates Croke Park, though, with a moratorium on public sector starting in 2009. These staff reductions have saved €900m per year in direct payroll costs... but what about all the gaps subsequently filled by agency or contract staff? Like the Maginot Line, there's a way around everything.

In the 12 months since the deal was inked, the 2,000 odd state bodies or quangos have been spared the axe. The Commission on Taxi Regulation has been moved into the National Transport Authority and the Local Government Management Board and Computer Services Board are merging. . . assuming legislation can be passed.

Better rostering in prison and in An Garda Siochana has also generated savings. Garda wages are to be paid electronically.

There's an agreement for primary school teachers -- members of INTO -- to work extra hours so that training, staff meetings or parent teacher meetings aren't held during teaching times.

"While some progress has been made in relation to the Croke Park Agreement, a serious step-change is now required to inject much needed momentum if the tangible benefits identified and promised under the deal are to be realised," according to Accenture Ireland's Mark Ryan.

"One of the key challenges will be defining "better performance" and, more importantly, how this is to be measured as it is a complex issue and differs across the public sector," he added. "Getting to grips with this difficult issue cannot be ignored."

The clock is ticking and the IMF will be getting twitchy unless there's a dramatic change in the pace of reform. It's time for the button to be pushed.

Sunday Indo Business

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