Sunday 21 July 2019

Stifling innovative thinking remains great civil disservice

State has ammunition for reform but breaking the 'carapace of complacency' may prove to be a difficult task, write Dan O'Brien

STALE THINKING: The Department of Social Welfare was a prime example of of non-innovation during the boom years
STALE THINKING: The Department of Social Welfare was a prime example of of non-innovation during the boom years
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The "permanent government" was a term coined to reflect the great and enduring power of the British civil service. Elected politicians may come and go, but, according to this view, the Whitehall mandarinate carries on regardless driving the machinery of UK government.

The British civil service model, which was maintained here after independence, undoubtedly gives senior bureaucrats huge power. In fact, if anything, Ireland's permanent government plays an even greater role in the running of the State than does its British counterpart owing to the design of the political system – many ministers have little interest in their departmental briefs and those who do are often swamped with constituency and parliamentary duties.

How well has the bureaucrat class acquitted itself over the longer term and, more specifically, to what extent does it bear responsibility for the governance failures that led to the economy crashing?

Start by focusing on the system's strengths. When compared to peer countries in Europe, Irish public administration is on the cleaner end of the spectrum. Whereas, for instance, it is common in some countries for civil servants to receive kickbacks on the awarding of contracts and licences, that has been very rare in Ireland and is certainly not the norm.

Reflecting Irish society in general, there is plenty of public mindedness in the civil service and the system's capacity for teamwork is often impressive, something that is to be seen when Ireland runs the rotating EU presidency and highlighted by the ready comparison with how Italy does the job (for purely alphabetical reasons, Irish and Italian presidencies run back to back).

The cohesion in Dublin contrasts with the chaos in Rome. Oftentimes rivalries among Italian ministries and within the foreign ministry erupt openly, leading to shambolic management of the presidency agenda and leaving those from other countries scratching their heads. Despite Italy's much greater diplomatic capacity, Ireland's presidencies over the decades are universally considered to be better run.

But a task such as an EU presidency is narrow and clearly defined, focuses mainly on brokering compromises and does not require great imagination or much innovative thinking. And it is these areas that the traditional weakness of the upper echelons of the Irish civil service begin to be seen.

It is exactly a quarter of century since historian Joe Lee published his magisterial (an overused adjective in publishing, but one genuinely merited in this case) Ireland 1912-1985. His analysis of the performance of the civil service in places rings as depressingly true today as it did then, and many of its criticisms – on hostility to new thinking and resistance to change in particular – are, alas, still valid.

After what Lee described as the "carapace of complacency" the need for improvement was finally punctured in the 1950s, it took more than a decade for reform-minded politicians and the more self-critical thinkers in the service to produce the 1969 Devlin Report, the first major review of the system since the State's founding. But little change happened subsequently. The same fate was to befall reform efforts in the Eighties and again in the Nineties.

All organisations are made up of individuals, and watching the interaction between instinctive innovators and those who prefer maintaining the status quo tells a great deal about an organisation's culture.

Lee cites a journal in the 1980s describing attitudes to those inclined to innovate that still sounds all too familiar – "too much challenge of the status quo would at best be unwelcome and blocked by senior levels, and at worst would result in the application of the label 'troublemaker'". Being labelled a troublemaker in any organisation is harmful; in the civil service it kills career advancement stone dead.

If internal innovation was not traditionally encouraged, where was fresh thinking to come from? Sean Lemass once said that some government departments seemed to expect "new ideas to walk in through the door". He may have been too kind.

There are still senior officials who give the impression that if a new idea did indeed walk in the door of their department it would be sternly admonished for showing up uninvited and promptly sent on its way.

The Department of Justice is a case in point. A researcher abroad studying how interior ministries around Europe work recounted his experience when he called Dublin. After a lengthy introduction on the nature of the project (the gain for the department would have been to provide potentially valuable insights into how counterpart ministries abroad do things), the researcher asked if there might be interest in participating. The official's one-word response was a conversation-ending "Why?"

The Department of Social Welfare provides a more systemic example of non-innovation. It spends more than any other department and enjoyed some of the biggest annual percentage budget increases during the bubble. There was a golden opportunity to help those trapped in the workless underclass escape cycles of intergenerational poverty and deprivation.

What happened? In 2007, before the economy crashed and after half a million jobs had been created over the previous decade, Ireland has the second highest proportion of households in which nobody worked in Europe.

Blame for this lies overwhelmingly with the politicians of the day. It is their role to make policy. But in reality officials know far more about the issues facing their department than any politician and if they do not identify problems, think about improvements and propose changes, sclerosis is certain to set in.

Even more blame can be attributed to senior civil servants for the failure to ensure that they have the basic human resources to carry out the job of the service.

When the British civil service took its modern form in the middle of the 19th Century, those favoured for recruitment were high-calibre generalists who could be put to work on a wide range of subjects. But as the business of government became increasingly complex in the second half of the 20th Century, the British began recruiting more specialists and creating fast tracks for high-fliers.

The civil service here remained in the 19th Century. As the late Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald pointed out, there were times that the Department of Finance employed no economists (a finance ministry without economists will be as effective as a hospital without doctors).

And this brings us to culpability for the crash. There is no shortage of blame to go around, but it still beggars belief that a system which only began emerging from a chronic and protracted public finances crisis in the mid-Nineties could, within a decade, have allowed the seeds of a second one to be sown.

Worse still, the Celtic Tiger carapace of complacency had grown so thick that even as the underlying fiscal position began to deteriorate in 2007, it took until well into 2008 before Department of Finance officials realised what was happening.

Similar complacency, resulting in part from an absence of expertise, resulted in a failure to prepare for a banking crisis even though the writing had been on the wall for many months before September 2008.

If there have been upsides to the crash, one has been that the reform-minded in the mandarinate have the ammunition to take on those who are content with the status quo. With a government that, though not truly radical, wants more change than any predecessor, the system is getting it most significant overhaul since 1922.

But reforming an organisation as big and as complicated as a civil service takes a long time. Those who prefer the old ways are still plentiful and they are quietly biding their time in the hope that the reform drive runs out of steam. They may yet have the last laugh.

Sunday Independent

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