Sunday 18 August 2019

Gardai of all ranks have been caught slacking on the job

Responsibility for the Garda breath test scandal lies with those who failed to notice it was happening

'Nearly two million false tests are now judged to have been submitted to the Garda Information Centre in what the report describes as an 'inaccurate and dishonest' way' (stock photo)
'Nearly two million false tests are now judged to have been submitted to the Garda Information Centre in what the report describes as an 'inaccurate and dishonest' way' (stock photo)

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's always instructive to watch people expressing outrage when others get caught doing what they're doing themselves. The latest episode in the ongoing row about Garda breath tests provided a master class in that.

An independent report, ordered by the Policing Authority and published last week, has found that 400,000 more false breath tests had been recorded by gardai over an eight-year period than previously thought, and that the full extent of the problem may never be known.

Nearly two million false tests are now judged to have been submitted to the Garda Information Centre in what the report describes as an "inaccurate and dishonest" way.

Hardly a ringing endorsement. Having said that, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. This is what happens in every organisation when nobody is watching.

Admittedly, most of us have never pretended to breathalyse motorists by the side of the road before ringing the fake statistics back to the boss - unless you're a garda, obviously, in which case you've been merrily doing it for years. The offence of which uniformed officers were guilty, though, was simply of pretending to do work that they weren't actually doing, and that's so common as to practically be part of the definition of having a job.

The internet is full of articles, many from respectable publications, with titles such as "How To Pretend You're Working When You're Not", "How To Look Busy At Work Without Really Working", and "The Art Of Not Working At Work". It's considered one of the essential so-called "life hacks" for those who don't want the boss breathing down their neck for slacking. The average worker spends up to three hours a day idling.

Isn't that what the gardai were doing? "How many breath tests did you carry out today?" - "Oh, hundreds, sir." - "Splendid, sergeant, just send along the stats, and we'll feed them into our big shiny computer to keep the bigwigs up in Dublin happy."

It's no different to any office worker who pretends to be busy on a report when they're really playing Candy Crush.

It only seems much worse because the work of An Garda Siochana has an ethical dimension. They're not supposed to be taking the country for a ride like those pen-pushers in the civil service who can make the most mundane of tasks stretch out to a week, with overtime. They're meant to be better than that.

And the results of their inactivity are far more serious. The worst that can happen when some office joe fails to do the job for which he's being paid is that he has to burn the midnight oil at home to meet those deadlines; a Garda traffic officer can hardly make up the missing data by doing breath tests in his pyjamas in his sitting room. In the case of the gardai not recording breath tests, the Road Safety Authority even believes that it had a negative effect on road deaths. It's difficult to imagine a more onerous outcome.

There's also the question of those 14,700 wrongful traffic convictions which have emerged as a result of weaknesses in the system. So no, it's not quite the same. But it is in the same ballpark. The question is: can you blame individual gardai for doing so?

The Policing Authority does, insisting that "no training is required for behaving honestly and ethically".

At the same time, gardai on the ground are under pressure from above to show that they're getting results. They're also demoralised by cuts in pay and a lack of opportunities for advancement, whilst they see a growing diminution in respect from the public and from politicians. The temptation to cut corners is understandable. Initially you start out by adding one or two extra breath tests to the figures; then, when that isn't noticed, you inflate the numbers further; over time, it all adds up - to nearly two million, as it happens. They would have got away with it too if they'd been a bit smarter about covering their tracks.

The scam was only discovered when an anomaly was noticed between the number of breath tests being recorded and the number of mouth pieces for the breathalyser kits being ordered from the company which supplied them.

The report criticises gardai of all ranks, but the main responsibility surely lies with management who failed to notice the discrepancy even as they were cutting Garda hours and resources. The salient point is that they would have been unable to carry out these breath tests anyway. Their superiors should have known that. Making sure the system worked was commensurate with their pay grade. The report calls this a "lack of organisational curiosity", which is certainly one way of putting it. The truth is that the overseers were slacking too. They weren't doing what they were being paid to do either, and they were being paid far more, and had more responsibility as a result, making their failure more lamentable.

Gardai on the ground were inputting more data than was consistent with the number of officers available. If you've been in the Garda for decades and have risen to seniority through the ranks, you ought to know that straight away.

The feeling that accuracy was not important in an organisation also comes from the top down. If individual gardai felt that accuracy was not important, that's because it wasn't. That there were no procedures in place to verify the figures confirmed that much. It's all about hitting targets, and the moral, personal, community element to policing has been denuded.

As long as the computers are humming away, spewing out data and spreadsheets, everyone's happy. The bosses can go to the committee rooms in the Dail and fob off TDs with some facts and figures.

The most damning thing in this saga is that senior officers failed to act even after being alerted to the problem, and that divisional officers failed to properly investigate when asked to do so.

The first rule of the Slackers Club is to jump to attention when the boss approaches. That this rule was ignored points to the vacuum of authority which any new Commissioner must urgently plug, though the weakness may be more structural than individual.

The report calls it "feeding the beast", and it's the beast which is principally to blame, not those who kept it fed on a constant diet of superficially reassuring bogus statistics.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss