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Flawed civil service unfit for purpose

We need a government that can tackle the structural faults within the State apparatus, writes Daragh McDowell

Like most truly important issues, the failures of the civil service and its role in the EU/IMF bailout has received relatively little attention in the aftermath of our economic ruination. A few token initiatives were stuffed into the party manifestos for 2011 but so far, little of significance has been accomplished. Worse still, no-one has been held accountable for the advice given by the civil service to the government in 2008 that led to the Irish sovereign credit rating being effectively destroyed two years later.

With a massive majority and incontrovertible evidence that the Irish civil service is simply not fit for purpose, the Coalition Government had an unprecedented opportunity to undertake the deep restructuring of the State apparatus we so desperately need. Instead it has stuck to the Croke Park Agreement, just as it has stuck to agreements to pay off Anglo bondholders.

The Government has made one major effort to reinvigorate the civil service that merits praise. The decision to lift the hiring embargo to bring in trained economists into all government departments is a sound one. But introducing expertise on its own will not build a civil service fit for the purpose of administering a complex 21st-Century state. The Croke Park Agreement is intended to manage change within the civil service with a minimum of industrial unrest, but in effect, it is simply marginally shrinking an organisation that seems to exist solely for the purpose of self-preservation and blame avoidance.

The Kevin Cardiff affair is a perfect case in point. After presiding over an accounting error so comically huge it could have formed the basis of an episode of The Thick of It, (not to mention playing a central role in the 2008 bank guarantee, and his stewardship of bank regulation at the department prior to that), Mr Cardiff was rewarded with a plum post in Europe. A subsequent investigation into how the Department of Finance lost track of €3.6bn on the books (conducted by the department itself, of course) revealed that the problem was understaffing. That is, there were too few civil servants, not too few competent ones.

This would be shocking if it wasn't so depressingly familiar. Consider that another DoF review -- the Wright report -- asserted that departmental warnings on the economy had been ignored by the 2002-07 FF-PD coalition. The only problem is that the Wright report never actually produced any of these alleged warnings. In addition, there was no mention of Marie Mackle, the whistleblower who did try to warn her superiors in the Department of Finance but whose concerns were ignored and dismissed by top civil servants.

This is not just an issue about who is sitting at the Cabinet table and setting the civil service's policy direction -- the excellent Nama Wine Lake blog recently posted a comprehensive evaluation of Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan's negotiations over the terms of the bailout. It is, of course, a list of comprehensive failures.

But what is most depressing is that it appears that there are still problems with the advice being given to government ministers which has hobbled them at the negotiation table (though to be fair, in the case of Kenny not much additional help was required in this regard).

Consider Kenny's announcement that he would seek a renegotiation of our bank debt the day after the fiscal compact treaty was ratified. This was greeted with ridicule from the rest of Europe and rightly so -- we were effectively asking for a negotiation immediately after giving away our leverage. Any official who advised the Taoiseach that this was likely to be successful, if anybody so advised, should have been fired for gross incompetence. Instead it was just another humiliation stoically borne.

As a permanent, apolitical (that is, unfireable) administrative apparatus, the civil service will never have the same dynamism or entrepreneurial ethos of the private sector. Nor should it -- it has a different task to fulfil. All civil services have to trade a certain degree of efficiency for the vital principle of continuity. But the Irish civil service has become exceptional only in its failures. It is geared towards diffusing responsibility for decision-making as far and wide as possible, rather than making good decisions. Incoherent strategic thought is paired with ensuring that no-one is ever held responsible for poor performance.

Bringing fresh blood and expert knowledge into government departments is a good first step. But until we have a government that looks seriously at the structural flaws in the service itself, flaws that lead to the prioritisation of groupthink and buck-passing, it will not lead to better civil service. When we will elect that government, and what new catastrophes will have to befall us before we do so, is another matter.

Daragh McDowell is a freelance journalist and consultant

Sunday Independent