Politicians and public servants refereeing their own fiefdoms is not true accountability
On its first day in office the present government unveiled an innovation that has paid rich dividends, namely the creation of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER).
Apart from its mandate to reduce public service costs, DPER took responsibility for organisation and management, the HR directorate for the public service, by far the largest employer in the State, and responsibility for pubic service reform. These functions had been the responsibility of the Department of Finance, a duty in which it had abjectly failed.
Early on DPER set out 17 major reform programmes in areas like procurement, property, IT, performance management and establishment of a senior public service. Specialists were hired in to complement hand-picked civil servants. The disciplines of project and programme management were applied to overcome the poor record of policy implementation. Greater expertise was brought to negotiating difficult deals with unions.
A striking and welcome change evident in the workings of DPER has been the way in which senior officials have engaged with the public.
From the outset they have consulted with a wide range of external as well as internal interests; they have published their plans on line for all to see; and crucially, they have reported publicly on progress every six months.
This commitment to genuine external engagement is evident, for example, in Minister Howlin's receptivity to challenges to his initial proposals for the reform of Freedom of Information procedures.
Secretary General Robert Watt has led by example in the new approach to external engagement and accountability. He has spoken regularly at conferences and written articles for the newspapers. In several instances he has criticised the media for giving little credit for positive achievements while concentrating on negative news about the public service or taking ill-informed swipes about matters that have been tackled already, and he has a valid point.
For example, last June a Renewal Plan for the Civil Service was launched to a huge media gathering in the Department of the Taoiseach. There were 25 separate, worthwhile initiatives in the plan, but media coverage focused almost exclusively on provisions that, as the headlines put it, would make it "easier to fire underperforming civil servants".
DPER undoubtedly has delivered significant savings and staff have absorbed much change and delivered much more with less, so great credit is due to all concerned.
However, the task of reform is far from completed, as Mr Watt himself freely acknowledges.
For instance, before Christmas, DPER published the latest performance ratings for the civil service which showed there had been no change in the pattern whereby less than 1pc of staff received a rating of one or two (out of five). A rating of three or more entitles a person to an automatic pay increment.
A second example indicates there are pockets within the public service which would seem to have been untouched by all reform efforts to date, such as the Department of Justice and Equality. A few weeks ago a review of that department (available on its website) revealed a litany of indefensible shortcomings, including poor strategic planning, poor record-keeping, ineffective governance of the many important statutory bodies that come under their remit, an "inward looking and secretive culture" and so on. The necessary supports are being put in place to implement the detailed recommendations attached to the review. We'll wait and see.
I believe that a similarly thorough review of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is called for, when one considers not just the recent mismanagement of the launch of Irish Water but the decades of widespread corruption in the planning process, scandalous breaches of building regulations, the many indicators of poor performance in local government and other failures that mirror in their own domain the worst governance failings of the departments of Finance, Justice and Health in recent times.
In assessing progress to date it is necessary to distinguish true reform from the early (unavoidably) crude cost-cutting that has caused huge collateral damage, for example the decimation of mental health services staff, particularly in the Dublin area. Also, much of what is being claimed as reform is nothing more than long overdue modernisation, such as putting services online.
In the next phase of the reform there is one absolutely pivotal element that has yet to be fixed, and that is the system of accountability at the apex of the civil service, the system whereby senior officials are held accountable.
Former minister Pat Rabbitte once said of this system that it is "grounded in a lie...it enables civil servants to his behind the skirts of ministers… and ministers to avoid responsibility".
The most recent attempt to address this decisive issue is fundamentally flawed.
An Accountability Board is being set up to hold senior officials accountable, a discipline which DPER defines as involving "external scrutiny in justifying and explaining past conduct... and with the possibility of facing of consequences arising".
Membership of the Accountability Board comprises the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the Minister for DPER, their respective Secretary Generals, plus one other Secretary General and three or four outsiders.
This is patently not a credible accountability structure.
This issue is pivotal for three reasons. Firstly, research on performance management shows that people manage others as they are managed.
If there isn't an authentic performance management system at the top then it is weakened and rendered useless down through the chain of command. So the 99.9pc good ratings are likely to continue.
Secondly, without consequences for failure the same failings recur, a pattern we have seen, just for example, in successive banking scandals or in the health system where the same hospital or clinical directorate has been found wanting repeatedly.
Thirdly, until we can move on from the inherited "Faustian pact" between officials and their political masters, the Civil Service will never become the "Fifth Estate", as commentator Maurice Hayes called it, that will act always in the public interest as a bulwark against mad and bad political decisions.
It will never exorcise the "culture of deference" that has permeated public life and which commentators, up to and including Frank McDonald before the Banking Enquiry two weeks ago, have cited as the root cause of catastrophic institutional failures in recent times.