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Daniel McConnell: Openness alone is not enough to rebuild the trust


NEW BROOM: Robert Watt, secretary-general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform

NEW BROOM: Robert Watt, secretary-general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform

NEW BROOM: Robert Watt, secretary-general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform

Last Thursday morning, speaking at a breakfast conference in Dublin's swanky Four Seasons Hotel, the country's top civil servant charged with reforming the system delivered a devastating yet refreshingly honest critique of how the public service has failed.

Robert Watt, secretary-general at Brendan Howlin's Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, gave voice to and accepted many of the criticisms that have long been labelled at the State from some quarters.

Watt is a combative figure, and is not adverse to getting his claws dirty with those he disagrees with, be they opposition politicians or journalists. Such abrasiveness is not widely welcomed and Watt is not universally liked – even among his own.

In 2011, aged just 41, Watt was promoted to the position of Howlin's top official in what was meant as a strong statement to the public that what had gone before had not worked.

In the appointed role of reformer in chief, Watt spoke of the lack of public confidence in how this State, which collapsed between 2008 and 2011, is run.

"There is a real need to re-establish the relationship between the State and the public that has been damaged during the crisis," he said. "And leaders like me have an obligation (to ensure) that decision-making is more open and transparent and that we are accountable for our actions. We are trying to rebuild that trust."

But throughout his speech, while he was trying to accentuate the positive, Watt delivered a critique of the public sector that one would normally expect to find on the pages of this newspaper.

The gig, organised by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, heard the top official make the sort of mea culpa not normally heard from leading civil servants.

"I am upfront about the deficiencies we have in terms of our capacity and our delivery. I accept the criticisms being made. We are as frustrated at times as others at the pace of reform.

"There are structural changes within the system we are trying to address. In the past, nobody was responsible for the public sector, nobody was responsible for driving change."

Watt continued: "Now the Taoiseach knows, sadly and regrettably from my point of view, who to ring to give out to when he is not happy. That is a first step, an important first step."

For him, he said, the biggest challenge had been a lack of leadership by managers throughout the public service, whether it be in the health sector or in education or another department.

"There are leadership gaps across the public sector. Often when you see a failure in a good project and you delve down, you find what it is going on and you find the leadership or the lack of leadership that is the problem. It comes down to individual people, who for some reason are not willing to go with it," he said.

But it was in response to one question that Watt conceded that, all too often, decisions are slowed down by fearful officials who are afraid of making mistakes and being caught out.

"In our system, people are risk-averse. But they are risk-averse because they respond to incentives. If you do wonderful things in the public service, you don't get that many plaudits, you don't get any plaudits. You might get your minister thanking you and you know you are doing a good job."

He continued: "If you mess up, you'll read all about it in the Sunday Independent. You'll be hauled before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain. So they are risk-averse. That leads to slow decision-making and a lack of decision-making."

He then gave a most revealing description of the culture of mediocrity that permeates the permanent government.

Watt said: "Someone said to me once that the perfect civil service career is to play 40 games, score no goals, concede

no goals, win no matches, lose no matches, draw all your games and they will make you secretary-general. And there is an element of truth to that statement."

He added: "We need to make the structural changes. We need new leadership, but overarching all this is a cultural change that involves us, involves the business community, it involves the media, it involves the PAC to accept the mistakes that we made to try and deal with success and failure in sensible ways."

Watt also spoke of the "very inefficient" way in which the State has to date spent its money when buying goods and said that many millions of euro would now be saved as a result.

One area Watt did not want to discuss was the defeat of Croke Park II and the ongoing attempts to resurrect that deal.

While it is refreshing to hear such frankness from someone within the system, as much as Watt would like it to be the case, such deficiencies are not limited to our past.

Many of the difficulties, inflexibilities and inefficiencies that Watt identified and acknowledged remain and are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Speaking to me afterwards, he expanded on his views, particularly in relation to pay. He said: "For certain activities, in certain roles, we are not as competitive as we would like to be when it comes to pay. We accept that people in the civil service need to show leadership. The minister has a pay policy and it is the right policy, but he knows there is a downside in terms of ability to attract people in."

When asked about whether bonuses should form part of civil servants' pay, Watt said: "Different types of incentive structures should be considered over time to ensure that deliverability and performance are linked more to pay."

Labour-relations chief Kieran Mulvey has been locked in talks with various unions to secure a belated agreement, but concessions and sweeteners and row-backs on cuts to allowances show how desperate the Government is to deal.

However, there is a strong sense – even from some within the Coalition – that the reform agenda is a far cry from the rosy picture painted by Watt.

To some, the reform agenda is dead and the watering-down of some of the terms of the deal has led several Fine Gael TDs to express their concerns.

Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy said: "I thought Croke Park II was a very good deal for the public sector. My understanding was that when the deal went down, we would move to legislation immediately.

"I am worried that what is now being talked about is an even better deal for the public sector.

"It makes me very uncomfortable that Social Partnership is stronger now than it ever was. Social Partnership was never transparent; this is not transparent. I cannot understand why we can afford such special protection to one group in the workforce but not others."

Dublin South TD Olivia Mitchell, who had been deeply critical of Croke Park I, said that she shared Murphy's concerns.

"I would be worried if we are just going through the motions and not really making progress. We have to get €300m from pay and I am worried, now that the deal failed, that we won't be able to get it. How are we to get the €300m if we are now giving ground on a more generous deal?"

She said that reform was essential and had to be tackled.

Galway TD Paul Connaughton said the €300m savings target this year and the €1bn target by 2015 had to be "real savings" and had to be maintained.

Robert Watt's openness is to be welcomed, but he and his Government have a lot to do in order to convince a sceptical public that reform is really going to happen.

From the culture he described, that reform is badly needed. If he does succeed, then and only then will the damaged relationship between the State and its people be repaired.

Daniel McConnell is Political Correspondent of the Sunday Independent

Irish Independent