Saturday 14 December 2019

If the crash can't change the civil service, nothing will

Robert Watt's call for the sacking of non-performing civil servants needs to be accompanied by a desire on the part of politicians for real change in the service.

Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt
Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt
Robert Watt
Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

IT'S no go the Government grant, it's no go the elections: sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

Strange lines, perhaps, from one of our greatest poets, but Louis MacNeice had spent 20 years at the BBC, itself modelled on the civil service. They encapsulate the popular view of officialdom and last week the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co. Donegal, joined MacNeice in saying the popular view may be correct.

In particular Robert Watt, Secretary-General of Brendan Howlin's Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (PER), raised eyebrows in Glenties - and, we may be sure, in Merrion Street - by saying civil servants who weren't performing should be sacked.

Contrary to the popular view, civil servants can be dismissed for not being up to the job. It is just that they hardly ever are. That was Watt's point.

In his address he said that managers in the service must have effective tools to deal with those who were under-performing. As in any organisation, dismissal would be a last option. In the view of many, the problem is that even the normal sanctions and inducements do not apply. There are no effective management tools.

At the same session, Prof Kevin Rafter of Dublin City University, author of a report on the civil service, said that, while the number of under-performing, or even non-performing, staff is small, it affects the morale of all.

Anyone who has had dealings with the civil service knows that many officials, especially at senior level, work extraordinarily hard. One reason they have to is that they are covering for others, including some at quite senior level, who do not pull their weight.

None works harder than the officials in Ministers' private offices.

The politicians come to rely on them, and often to admire them. Ministers do not meet the slackers and easily lose any appetite for changes which would upset the staff around them. Most secretaries-general seem happy to leave it like that.

None of this is new. Instead, it is a very old story. The mandarins have proved adept at turning proposals for change into benefits for staff, while thwarting the changes. Examples include performance bonuses, which were then paid to pretty much everyone; and contracts for top civil servants, supposedly based on merit, which turned into gold-plated salaries and attendant pensions for pretty much all of them.

It is probably no coincidence that Robert Watt is not a career civil servant. He has a primary degree in business studies and a masters in economics, and worked with consultancy firms Indecon and London Economics before joining the Department of Finance and then taking over at the newly-created PER. Now, he is going back to the private sector.

Many analysts and business people believe there 
was a decline in the quality
of the Irish civil service during the 20-year boom and bubble from 1987-2007. Before that, the best and brightest youngsters sat the ferocious Civil Service exam. After 
that, they headed for the
glamour and rewards of
finance and technology.

Civil servants got a share of those rewards through relativity and benchmarking processes, but were never obliged to undergo anything like the fierce working hours and pressures of IT, investment banking or legal services.

The excessive use of consultants is often a sign that departments lack the skills even to deal with what should be their core business. Worse, the financial crisis suggests they also lost the key ability to "speak truth to power."

Watt has overseen the creation of structures which could remedy this. As he said in Glenties, accountability is the key to better performance, rather than just weeding out poor performers, although that would be part of it.

The bright Leaving Cert boys (they were nearly all boys) are not coming back. For all our sakes, those who are still there will have to do better, or else clear off. Clever young people nowadays do not want to meander through a static system, however much it provides security all the way to the tomb.

Even if they did, such a system will become ever more ineffective in a world which changes at bewildering speed. Skills will have to be recruited from outside, and those inside will have to take time out elsewhere to learn new skills and techniques for a future no-one can predict.

Brendan Howlin and Robert Watt have put a lot of the bits in place which might bring about such changes. But the service in general, and politicians in particular, must want to make them work. As to whether they do, one must wonder about the decision to appoint the new secretary-general in Finance without advertising outside - a decision endorsed by a minister who suffered more than most from inadequate official advice.

If the Crash does not bring about real change, we can be sure that nothing will.

Sunday Independent

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