Tuesday 23 January 2018

Top civil servant acted in 'aggressive' manner, says Social Justice head

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform
Picture: Steve Humphreys
Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Picture: Steve Humphreys
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

The head of Social Justice Ireland, Dr Sean Healy, has accused a top civil servant of acting in an "aggressive" manner after the latter suggested arguments he made at the National Economic Dialogue weren't backed up by research.

Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, told Dr Sean Healy he should provide data as opposed to "supposition", adding that he would like to see him "point out some positive things in the country".

Dr Healy had earlier said a public presentation at the NED showing that Ireland was listed 11th in a global ranking focused on social progress wasn't credible, claiming it doesn't reflect the experience of many Irish people.

He said the results were not consistent with the Sustainable Progress Index, produced by Social Justice Ireland, and which Dr Healy said compared Ireland to other EU countries

Dr Healy said he did not believe it was the "norm" for a public servant to make such a "political statement".

"His response was very aggressive in the sense that he challenged claims that they weren't based on any data, or research," Dr Healy told the Irish Independent. "I dispute that very strongly". Dr Healy said Mr Watt had told him, "quite patronisingly", to look up CSO.ie.

Dr Healy said research produced by Social Justice Ireland earlier this year had included data from more than 100 studies by the CSO.

"To make a claim that we were acting in that way, was not acceptable to me under any circumstance.

"It wasn't that I had dismissed the other [research presented at the NED], it was just that I was questioning its credibility," Dr Healy added.

Dr Healy said he later met Mr Watt in a NED breakout session on Wednesday afternoon, and yesterday he gave him a copy of Social Justice Ireland's Social Progress Index.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe defended Mr Watt yesterday. He said at the heart of the debate was the need for evidence.

"Saying that we have achieved much, is not the same as saying that there's no difficulty at all," the minister said. "We're aware of the difficulty, but we do think it's important that there is an acknowledgement, looking at the evidence, of what has been achieved. I greatly respect the contribution that Sean has made. We agree on some things, we disagree on other things, that is the whole point of having a dialogue and a debate.

"We went through a period in our society where we took too many views for granted. There was a consensus regarding too many important things. If now we're in a place where having a debate, and open debate about where we are, I think that is a good thing."

Asked whether Mr Watt's intervention was appropriate for a public servant, Mr Donohoe said: "Both Robert and all of my other public servants that work in my department are regularly in fora in which they are asked for their views and they give them," Mr Donohoe said.

"So, if they are entitled and able to do that in an Oireachtas Committee, which they do on a very regular basis, it is absolutely appropriate that they can do that in other places to."

Mr Watt declined to comment.

Irish Independent

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