Empowering civil servants to be ethical is the best way to protect the public good
In January 2014, a consultation paper on civil service accountability, issued by officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform(DPER), posed a truly fundamental question for their fellow civil servants: "How far should public servants rely on their professionalism and sense of personal morality and how far should they simply follow instructions from their political masters?"
How this question was answered in the past played a crucial role in the failures of our system of governance and consequent disastrous collapse of the public finances and implosion of the banks, not to mention repeated failures in oversight of An Garda Síochána, widespread breaches of planning and building regulations, which gave us the likes of Priory Hall, and other seemingly intractable problems.
Following six months of public consultation, led by an independent expert panel, the panel's recommendations to government were silent on this core question.
But it is imperative that there be no flinching from engaging with the issues that prompted it, for the very good reason that political interests are not always synonymous with the public interest. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Niamh Hardiman, in her book, 'Irish Governance in Crisis', explains how our political system inclines ministers to place their own re-election first, the interests of their party second and policy - that is doing the right thing - third in their order of priorities. This value system finds expression in cronyism, amoral localism, short-termism and inflationary budgets to buy elections. So "following the instructions of their political masters" often would be contrary to doing the right thing.
Two contrasting answers to the question can be observed in the public service. The first would say: "The government is duly appointed by democratically elected TDs, so our job is to follow their instructions. That's democracy."
This stance is evident in the handling of parliamentary questions by officials in such a way as to protect the minister from embarrassment and, in effect, to frustrate the public's right to know - a routine deceit.
Evidence to various inquiries revealed that not taking notes of vital meetings, because they could be subject to Freedom of Information (FoI), was prevalent. Garret Fitzgerald once said this should be illegal. A Heads of Audit (from the civil service) submission to the expert panel said: "Some of the inaction by senior civil servants was as a result of their roles being too politicised, relationships being too close and lack of a culture of constructive challenge, even behind closed doors… A primary failure was an inability or unwillingness to defend against poor policy direction and exaggerated political manifestos from government and the commercial world."
The attitudes that define this first response are deference and ingratiation. The attitude that defines the alternative answer is independence.
Officials who hold this view would say "I too am for democracy," meaning: "My role is to serve the minister but ultimately the public interest takes precedence over his/her political interests if there is a clear conflict between the two."
Maurice Hayes, the eminent former public servant, urged that the civil service become the 'Fifth Estate', with the necessary independence and protections to act as a bulwark against mad and bad politics.
The iconic figure of this school of thought is TK Whitaker, who 'spoke truth to power' when the situation called for it. It bears asking: how would Whitaker answer the DPER question?
There are many examples of senior people who would imitate Whitaker when presented with the challenge. Officials in the Department of Social Protection not only advised Joan Burton against allowing Irish Water to acquire people's PPS numbers, they also wrote this advice into the record.
Patrick Honohan, in the public interest, revealed on radio that a bailout was on the way, even though this caused political difficulty for Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
More junior staff who have the temerity to refuse to 'go along to get along' - such as Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe, who blew the whistle on the penalty points scandal - run the risk of jeopardising their career prospects.
Hence the importance of the new whistleblower's legislation and enhanced FoI provisions, which provide some protection against victimisation for speaking out.
The Taoiseach's department published its Draft National Risk Assessment 2015 in order to "avoid repeating the mistakes of the past… which had catastrophic consequences for thousands of our citizens", as it was expressed in the 2014 version. The two dozen risks listed are largely external threats, such as a pandemic, nuclear war and the UK exiting from the EU.
The greatest risk in any context, however, is the risk that dare not speak its name. Looking at the disaster that actually happened in Ireland, the greatest risk resides at the critical intersection in our system of governance, in the relationship between the political system and the civil service; but this risk is not mentioned.
Dr Elaine Byrne, an expert on political corruption, observed about evidence to the banking enquiry: "There was no 'gotcha', there was a poison in the system." The crash was not caused by pilot error or villainy but by metal fatigue, years of corrosion at the pivotal joint in our system of governance, especially since the Haughey era, resulting in the politicisation of key elements of our civil service.
The Irish political philosopher, Philip Petit, author of the landmark book 'Republicanism', says in his most recent work, 'Just Freedom: Moral Compass for a Complex World', that deference, out of fear of interference, and ingratiation, going along to get along, are the marks of a subject people.
In sharp contrast:"A free man in the republican tradition does not have to kow-tow, to fawn or flatter... they do not have to walk on egg shells… they walk tall and look others in the eye without deference."
Governing parties will never change our electoral system, because it offers them the best chance of re-election.
The best defence against "repeating the mistakes of the past" lies in the maturation of our civil service as the 'Fifth Estate', imbued with a culture that rewards ethical behaviour, technocratic competence, speaking truth to power in the public interest without fear of interference and personal accountability.
Eddie Molloy is a PhD management consultant. This article summarises a presentation made to the MacGill Summer School 2015.