Friday 15 December 2017

OPW's own staff say TDs fail to scrutinise it properly

John McGuinness
John McGuinness

Paul O'Donoghue

The Dáil's Public Accounts Committee is failing in its role to oversee the Office of Public Works, two of the OPW's own staff have claimed.

In a submission to an operational review of the organisation, surveyors employed by the OPW, which manages the State's property portfolio, were highly critical of the PAC, saying that it does not have "the capability or capacity to penetrate to the key issues".

Accounts for the OPW are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG). It then provides the audited accounts to the PAC, which can then hold the OPW accountable for its spending.

The OPW has a portfolio of over 2,000 buildings. In 2014, it had a total spend of €276.7m, of which €223.1m was spent on the management of its properties.

The surveyors' submission, which was made to a capacity and capability review of the OPW, said: "Even though the OPW chairman is notionally accountable to PAC and through audits by the C&AG, the standard of scrutiny at best scratches the surface.

"The seeming glorification of often minor infractions and the 'grilling' of the chairman on such unimportant errors has led to the joke that the German word 'schadenfreude' (pleasure derived from another person's misfortune) was invented for the behaviour of the C&AG/PAC. Neither of these bodies has either the capacity or capability to penetrate to the key issues."

They added that in response to "often simplistic and superficial queries from auditors and politicians it is inevitable that OPW responds through dissimulation. Unfortunately, this has become ingrained in its culture (and) the practice is highly corrosive to staff at lower levels, breeding fatalism and cynicism."

Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, who chairs the PAC, rejected the assertions.

Speaking to the Irish Independent he said: "I don't accept that the PAC just scratches the surface. Over the years we have highlighted many failures of the OPW, such as its management of properties and OPW properties not being used.

"Like any government organisation, the OPW is scrutinised by the C&AG (and) it is often quite difficult to get to the detail of the operations of the OPW because of the size it is.

"The C&AG requires a lot more resources to get down to the critical detail of an operation like that, it is similar to Nama in its size.

"Unfortunately, in successive governments there has not been any political intent to modernise and reform the State's approach to the management of property and the procurement issues of the OPW."

The surveyors were also highly critical of the parliamentary questions submitted by TDs and OPW management. They said: "Parliamentary questions, which should lead to making [senior staff] accountable, are largely ineffective and a waste of time as nothing results other than embarrassment."

The submission was referenced by two OPW civil servants in a separate submission to a civil service review. In their submission, the civil servants raised concerns that the OPW appears to be getting poor value deals on property transactions.

They claimed that this could be as a result of, among other causes, "corrupt actions". The OPW has asked the surveyors to review their submission and "determine if an issue exists before any subsequent action can be taken".

Irish Independent

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