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Eamon Delaney: Changes at the heart of power leave Gilmore on the margins

AT LONG last, we have some significant changes in our civil service, which will hopefully prevent a re-occurrence of recent oversight mistakes and may even shake up the bureaucratic nature of the service itself.

Of late, we have had the appointment of John Moran, a go-getting semi-outsider, at the top of the Department of Finance, the introduction of legislative protection for whistleblowers and, most crucially, the creation of a new supervisory Government Economic and Evaluation Service. All of these changes have been introduced quite independently of the Croke Park agreement which we hope will bring about further reform and improvements.

At Finance, John Moran takes over from the controversial Kevin Cardiff and it would be hard to find a greater contrast. Two years ago, Moran was running a juice bar in southern France before Michael Noonan brought him into the department to help in crisis management and sorting out the banks. Before that, Moran had a stellar career in financial services.

It would be hard to imagine Cardiff, who was famously uneasy about flying, running a juice bar in southern France. And it would be hard to imagine the number-crunching John Moran letting his department not notice a discrepancy of €3.6bn on its books, as happened under Cardiff. (Let us hope.) Indeed, up until now it would have been unheard of for someone not already from the Department of Finance, or the wider civil service, to be appointed to what is one of the most powerful positions in the civil service.

Meanwhile, a new Government Economic and Evaluation Service has been set up by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin. It is designed to improve the quality of expertise across government departments. The unit will concentrate on skills gaps in information and communications technology, human resources, project management, accountancy and economics. According to the minister, the unit will "support the various departments in evaluating policy and expenditure options; value-for-money exercises; cost benefit and regulatory impact analyses; and regulatory and competition issues" -- all of which is good news.

"The purpose of the new service is to support better policy-making across the system, through enhanced economic and policy analysis expertise," said Howlin. For too long, our civil service model has depended on staff with generalist skills rather than recruiting specialists or getting staff to deepen sectoral expertise. The weakness of this generalist model was a major contributing factor to not preventing governmental spending excesses and the mistakes with which we are now saddled.

However, there is a feeling that many of these changes just mean a reinforcement of existing civil service culture and "a return of Sir Humphrey", as one disgruntled ministerial adviser put it to me recently. Such advisers still complain about the continuing resistance of the ruling bureaucracy to their ideas, and the continuing 'group-think' which they say has been reinforced by the bailout and the scenario of officials dealing 'one to one' with officials in Brussels and the Troika -- which is just the sort of situation they are happiest with. Of course, these advisers also say this to justify their cap-busting salaries, ie, they need to be well-paid to take on the big mandarins but it is a valid concern nonetheless, and shows that for a newly arrived adviser, full of beans and fresh ideas, it is an uphill struggle.

Another big change at the heart of Government is the establishment of a unified EU division within the Taoiseach's department. Previously, responsibility for EU matters was shared between the Taoiseach's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). But the new division, which has about 30 staff, involved the closing of the existing EU affairs division in Foreign Affairs, and its personnel being transferred to the Taoiseach's department.

It is headed by Geraldine Byrne Nason, a second secretary from DFA and a skilled diplomat familiar with the EU bureaucratic landscape, which these days is crucial. Byrne Nason's responsibilities also straddle the economic areas, as she's responsible for managing the Government's Economic Management Council, whose members include the Taoiseach, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin. So there's a tighter overlap of all the power levers, so to speak.

But what all this means is that at a political level, much more power is concentrated in the Taoiseach's Department. We now have an almost Presidential-type atmosphere, similar to what Blair created in the UK under New Labour. And by 'Presidential', I mean 'US Presidential', not a decorative role similar to the Aras. Thus, the heavy lifting in Brussels is being done -- and more importantly, is being seen to be done -- by the Taoiseach, the Finance Minister, and the Minister for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton, who has blossomed in her role, which was effectively hived off from the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

Labour supporters are not happy with this, and the consequent marginalisation of their leader, but this is exactly what Eamon Gilmore agreed to. The perception was that he saw Foreign Affairs as a hiding place from the damage of taking hard economic decisions. This is similar to the perception that some had of Dick Spring back in the Eighties. But Spring had the North to sort out back then and the post seemed to mean more. Now, the focus is obsessively on Europe and it's Lucinda's gig, not Eamon's. He is instead quietly travelling to north Africa and not being particularly outspoken on outrages such as those in Syria. (Contrast his silence on this with the much more robust stand of William Hague, for example.)

Meanwhile, Joan Burton is back in Dublin, at the coalface, implementing reforms and fighting hard for the Labour identity within Government. Eamon Gilmore is an honourable and hardworking man but, in terms of profile, it is hard to know what he wants sometimes. Either way, the rest of us can be consoled that the machinery of overall government is improving, but there's work to be done yet.

Sunday Independent