Wednesday 17 July 2019

Eddie Molloy: Public sector managers have failed by glossing over poor performers

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Over the new year holiday three government ministers spoke of the need to improve performance management in the civil service. This came against the backdrop of a recent report which showed that less than 1pc of assessments in 2012 placed staff in the categories "unacceptable" and "needs improvement".

Brian Hayes kicked off, advocating bonuses for exceptional performance. Leo Varadkar was quoted as saying that persistently poor performers should be "squeezed out" -- in other words fired.

He added, however, that "we don't have the tools" to do so, then suggested that is was up to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to provide the necessary tools.

Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin does not seem ready to go as far as Mr Varadkar, saying: "I mean we don't have a situation where we fire public servants, but where people are demonstrably not doing the job, I think we have to have sanctions."

The most basic requirement for an effective performance management system is that there be no fudge about the consequences of failure. A fundamental weakness of the now totally discredited PMDS (Performance Management and Development System) was that the only sanction for poor performance was some form of "development", such as being sent on a training programme.

The bottom line was that people so disposed could settle into a lifestyle of mediocre performance, accumulating annual increments automatically, taking all their sick leave entitlement and just time-serving until a comfortable retirement and there was nothing their boss could do about it.

Recently, a public service manager told of how she decided to confront a person who was not delivering -- and she was "told to back off by personnel".

The research on performance management shows that people manage others as they themselves are managed, so you have to start at the apex of the organisation. Ministers are not accountable to the Dail and the 1924 Ministers and Secretaries Act, which governs the relationship between ministers and senior officials, conflates their respective roles and responsibilities. This means that neither can be held personally responsible or accountable for failure.

As Pat Rabbitte colourfully expressed it in a scholarly paper on the topic of accountability, delivered to the Burren Law School in 2010, the current arrangements "enable civil servants to hide behind the skirts of ministers" and for ministers to avoid accountability.

The 1924 Act and a related 1997 Act have to be replaced if the latest ministerial enthusiasm for effective performance management is to be taken seriously. Ultimately, if we are to get the mature, adult system of accountability we desperately need as a society, then the civil service must be reconstructed as the "Fifth Estate", as advocated by the esteemed former public servant Maurice Hayes.

He urged the reformation of the senior civil service with sufficient autonomy and separation from the political system -- somewhat like the media or the judiciary -- such that, where necessary, civil servants could act as a bulwark against mad and bad politics.

Dr Hayes made his proposal in the context of an excoriating critique of the dysfunctional political/administrative culture which spawned catastrophic institutional failures in recent times, a culture in which officials were trapped and which has variously been characterised as a culture of "secrecy", "timidity" and "deference", or more recently by Judge Smithwick, as a "culture of political expediency and loyalty to colleagues".

Legislation would take at least 18 months to materialise, but in the meantime a worthwhile step would be to call in those managers, all senior officials, who dished out such glowing recent assessments and failed to name the underperformers. In glossing over poor performance they themselves have failed in their responsibilities as managers. So give the worst offenders a rating of "unacceptable" or "needs improvement" and six months to get it sorted.

Nothing will change until the day arrives when the most senior people give negative ratings to their immediate subordinates -- and this could start today if managers like the woman who tried but was warned off by personnel were given the backing to use the tools that are already available.

While the emphasis tends to be on tackling underperformance, wherever there are effective systems at least as much attention is given to the person's development. Herein lies one of the big differences between the public and private sectors: senior managers in the private sector spend far more time systematically mentoring, stretching and otherwise developing their people than do their counterparts in the public sector, where it is more or less a case of "every man for himself".

The good news, then, is that the first beneficiaries of a proper performance management system will be the vast majority of public servants who go to work every day to do a good job.

The other good news is that for over a year a working group of senior civil servants has been developing proposals to address the deficits in the structures and processes of governance. Among the reforms announced by the Government to date, none will have the game-changing impact of these particular reforms. It is imperative, therefore, that this work comes to full fruition without political considerations trumping the national interest.

The latest ministerial tough talking about tackling underperformance and rewarding excellence has as much prospect of fulfilment as the proverbial promise to drain the Shannon basin, unless the legal underpinning of an authentic system is provided.

This will be the acid test and it will not come easily because, as Mr Rabbitte observed: "Defenders of the status quo are those with most to lose from proper, effective oversight and accountability."


Irish Independent

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