Tuesday 12 December 2017

Why we need a new beginning on public sector reform

Fiona O'Shea

Since the Croke Park Agreement was drawn up in April 2010, we've had report after report but no real progress on reform. The progress report on implementation of the agreement, which was published last June, painted a very pretty picture.

Savings in public-sector pay amounting to €289m were claimed for the agreement. In fact, most of these savings were set in motion by an early retirement incentive scheme and moratorium on recruitment which predated the agreement. And increased pension costs have swallowed up most of the €289m savings.

All of this amounts to political foot-dragging while the State's finances are in dire trouble and the prospect of another harsh budget hangs over the land. Yet another wasted opportunity.

Both Labour and Fine Gael committed to large-scale reform of the public sector in their election manifestos. As the architect of the Labour Party's reform policy document, 'New Government Better Government', with which I am quite familiar because I contributed to it, Mr Howlin committed the party and subsequently the Government to reviewing structures, grading, planning and accountability in the public service.

But since taking power, the Government has done nothing but commissioned reports, focusing on the admittedly necessary target of cost reduction, but without addressing the underlying systemic problems in the public sector.

Chief among these is that the public sector is just not flexible enough for change to happen quickly, if at all. Attempting to change it is like trying to turn an elephant in the bed.

Job purpose

Profit, a driving force in the private sector, is not an issue when it comes to providing public services. Without the clear goal of making a profit, many people in administrative grades across the public service lose sight of the purpose of their jobs.

For the people at the head of these organisations, real power is reflected in the size of their budgets and staff numbers.

There is no incentive for them to drive down costs or reduce staff numbers, other than in response to an edict from the minister.

And while cabinet ministers may well support the principle of public sector reform, they will nonetheless jealously guard their own departments' budgets when it comes to competing for scarce resources.

There are numerous systemic barriers to change that will have to be tackled if real reform is to be achieved. Civil service departments may have changed names over the years, but they have never been modernised. Instead, state agencies have been attached to them like a band-aid on a wound, blurring lines of accountability and duplicating work.

It is time to look closely at the various government departments and state agencies and ask whether we need them. Or if they should be rationalised.

The Government is committed to disbanding or rationalising some of the agencies. But this does not go far enough.

A country the size of Ireland does not need 15 government departments and associated ministers and junior ministers. Why is there no talk of culling the departments?

And while we're at it, let's have a look at staffing. The confusing number and variety of staffing grades in the Irish public service belong to a bygone era and it's well past time they were changed.

For example, there are 13 management grades in the civil service between the front line and the top, a structure which is duplicated in local government and across other public bodies.


This means 13 people in any one line whose main job is to supervise the work of the person reporting to them. It takes so long for news to get from the top to the front line that the grapevine takes over and often distorts the message.

And there is little opportunity for news to get from the front line to the top, which might allow staff to influence how they do their work.

Many people working in public organisations know where the waste is to be found, and how to eliminate it, but never get an opportunity to bring about change.

The emphasis is on supervision while leadership is far more valuable, particularly in times of change. As is freedom for managers to make a decision, not refer it up the line for someone else to take.

There are few rewards in the civil service for taking risks. Failure will not lead to dismissal, as it might in the private sector. Instead, people get put on the shelf.

They will never get promoted, their opinion doesn't matter and they have little or no control over how they do their job. A recipe for cynicism, and an "I've seen it all before" dismissal of change.

Because of the complicated grading structure, social partnership agreements, the pension levy and recent pay cuts, pay scales in the public service are incomprehensible to anyone other than a mandarin in the Department of Finance.

There is no need for this level of complexity around staffing. And there is even less need for so many grades in the management structure.

A flattening of the organisational structure would reduce staffing and administration costs, promote real-time communication and introduce flexibility into public organisations which would allow them to react far more quickly to emerging challenges.

But perhaps the greatest challenge is the tendency of programmes for change in the public service to become institutionalised in their turn.

Implementation groups are established and never disbanded. Reporting to these groups is formulaic and lacking in concrete information, like the recent report on the implementation of the Croke Park Agreement.

A performance management and development system implemented following an earlier reform programme has been drowned in management jargon and paperwork.

To get support for change in a public service resistant to change, the Government will need to articulate a new vision for public services in Ireland.

A vision that will appeal to public sector workers and service users alike. They will need to shift the national debate from what is wrong with our public services to what it is we want and are entitled to expect from them.

At the same time, they will need to convince public sector staff jaded from pay cuts, downsizing and public hostility that reform presents no threats but will actually give them more job satisfaction and make the public sector a better place to work.

Early efforts to restore confidence in the public sector will be essential. A start would be to invite public service staff and citizens to help in developing a new vision for a dynamic, responsive, transparent and accountable public service.

The recent invitation for suggestions as to how expenditure cuts could be achieved (now closed), falls far short of the necessary dialogue.

If change really is to be achieved in the public service, the Government must take the lead and make sure that it communicates clear goals to senior public service managers and insists on equally clear reports in return.

The ultimate aim must be a modern, open environment within public service organisations where staff are free to express their own opinions and influence how their work is done and citizens have confidence in the services.

Fiona O'Shea is a former principal officer and head of communications for the Revenue Commissioners

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