Monday 20 May 2019

Critics need to keep up with rapid change in our civil service

Civil servants now have to answer parliamentary questions and appear before Oireachtas Committees Photo: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg
Civil servants now have to answer parliamentary questions and appear before Oireachtas Committees Photo: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

Robert Watt

There are many things I agree with Eddie Molly about ('Without accountability we will be cursed with politics of ineptitude,' Irish Independent, January 12). The business of public service reform is not just unfinished, it is on-going and is now the norm.

However, his caricature of the Irish civil service as suffering from a huge accountability gap - which he goes on to claim was the root cause of Ireland's economic collapse - is a minority view. It will be interesting to see whether the forthcoming report of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry supports his contention.

Indeed, the Banking Inquiry belies the colourful but completely outdated picture of civil servants hiding behind the skirts of ministers to avoid responsibility. It could hardly have escaped his notice that in the course of the Banking Inquiry nine current and former senior officials of the Department of Finance - including Secretaries-General - were required to account to the inquiry and respond to detailed questioning, in addition to providing comprehensive written evidence now published on the committee's website.

Sweeping statements about the civil service also ignore its scale and complexity. After all, it is a system that ranges from small policy departments like DPER to a department such as Social Protection, which makes 85 million payments every year efficiently and on time.

Mr Molloy acknowledges that the civil service is seeking to address the accountability issue, but then he goes on to deride those efforts. On foot of an independent report chaired by Professor Kevin Rafter much has been done.

An Accountability Board has been established. This will oversee the first ever performance reviews for the heads of each government department based on published targets. It will manage a process of organisational reviews - and ensure that the Corporate Governance standard for the civil service, approved by Government last November, is implemented. This will provide greater rigour and external quality assurance in relation to performance.

Equally significantly the Civil Service Management Board brings the heads of government departments together for the first time to tackle system-wide issues more effectively and put an end to the problem of departmental silos.

The Rafter Report also recommended the publication of who does what in the civil service and to whom they are answerable. This Framework of Assignments which has legal force under the Public Service Management Act can be found at

It is worth noting that the Rafter Report did not identify the need for legislative change. But did support a range of legislative initiatives such as Freedom of Information (FOI) reform, the establishment of a Register of Lobbying, the introduction of comprehensive whistleblower protection legislation, and providing statutory powers of inquiry to the Houses of the Oireachtas that would increase the transparency and accountability of public administration in Ireland. All this has been enacted.

These new initiatives are in addition to civil servants answering parliamentary questions, appearing before Oireachtas Committees, dealing with FOI requests and the personal responsibility and accountability of accounting officers to the Public Accounts Committee of the Dáil.

How can this be fairly described as a wholly unaccountable system?

For the civil service leadership, accountability is about clarifying what civil servants actually do and how we do it. It is about working together on cross-cutting priorities for the civil service in a joined-up way. It is about setting clear published targets for departments and secretaries general with external assurance. And it is about clarity around the consequences for senior leadership if they fail to deliver.

Of course, for some commentators "accountability" is simply code for firing civil servants who fall under the media spotlight in the context of some political controversy or other. Trial by media is not very edifying. Nor does it improve performance or provide the correct incentives for innovation or attracting the best talent into public jobs.

Continuing to improve overall staff performance is also a critical priority. No successful private company bases its human resource policy (HR) on the kind of confrontational performance management systems that Mr Molloy sets out. In fact many are moving away from one way performance management measurement system to more holistic efforts to improve performance. This is why we are professionalising HR, investing more in training and development, moving people around more and getting the best people to serve on State boards (see

Like open recruitment to the system, like the development of shared services, like the establishment of specialists units like the Government Economic Service, like the introduction of corporate governance standards to departments our achievements represent the steady commitment to reforming how we do our business. There is no big bang solution.

So, in conclusion, let's have a proper discussion about the civil service. Let's have one which is open and fair - a debate which recognises our achievements and also our failings. As a critical form of accountability this generation of civil service leaders is up for this debate.

Robert Watt is secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform

Irish Independent

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