Wednesday 21 February 2018

Sketch: Why the Sir Humphreys will always be winners in the end

John Downing

John Downing

WHEN Eamon Ryan arrived at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources as minister in June 2007, the departmental secretary general presented him with a box set of the 'Yes Minister' programmes.

The 1980s BBC series featured the efforts of the minister, Jim Hacker, to effect policy changes only to be met by the implacable permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. "The secretary general, Brendan Tuohy, felt it would help me understand what it was all about and what I was getting into," Ryan recalled.

Many government ministers, past and present, will tell you that the top person from the "permanent government" in each department is both a formidable ally and a foe of the politically-selected birds of passage, sometimes both at the same time.

On the plus side the secretary general of the department is more usually a person with a wealth of experience and skill who is there to guide and protect the minister. On the minus side they know how 'the system' works and how to ensure that certain things happen and certain things do not.

The announcement last week by the Department of Finance secretary general John Moran that he is leaving the job, clearly brought out a long-held view among senior politicians about these most senior civil servants. Most felt that Moran's private sector experience made him more flexible and open to innovation and there were mutterings across all parties at Leinster House that another 'outsider' must be found to head up the administration's most powerful department.

For the past 20 years the government has operated a scheme whereby the secretary general is appointed for seven years. It has increased turnover and ended an era where a relatively young appointee could dominate a department for decades with a big risk of becoming a dead hand on the tiller.

While in theory it is possible to recruit from outside, in practice it rarely happens and his appointment was an exception.

But on many days, in many government departments, the minister engages in a battle of wills with our Sir Humphreys.

Irish Independent

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