Friday 19 July 2019

Public servants must have freedom to bark and bite in interest of citizens

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

In April 2008, just as the banks were collapsing and the public finances imploding with "catastrophic consequences for many thousands of our citizens" as the Taoiseach has expressed it, the opening lines of the OECD's Review of the Irish Public Service were singing the praises of our public service for the "central role it has played in Ireland's economic success, one that many OECD countries would like to emulate".

A spate of subsequent enquiries revealed that whatever about their contribution to the successes of the Celtic Tiger, senior public servants had also played a central role in this national disaster. They were found to be technically incompetent, and worse, lacking in moral courage and capacity for independent thinking - routinely violating espoused values of our public service like transparency and accountability. In a word, failures of competence and probity.

As the last man standing at critical moments when the public interest was at stake, they chose to "go along to get along", as political commentator Gerard Howlin puts it.

The studies by Mssrs Regling and Watson, Nyberg and, recently, evidence to the Banking Inquiry paint a picture of officials in positions of vital national importance being timid in speaking up about alarming signals, putting a positive spin on patently negative data, instructing staff to "take that out - it's too political", and not using the risk-management tools available to them.

Not taking notes of vital meetings is routine. Just three days after entering government, one minister was advised by a senior official: "I wouldn't put that in writing, it could be FOI-able". Garret FitzGerald, not long before he died, said that omitting to take notes should be illegal. Judge Fennelly was clearly shocked at the extent of the practice.

These practices are not confined to the domains of finance and justice.

Recently Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), Brendan Howlin took a swipe at anyone who would draw attention to this endemic politicisation of our public service, saying: "After all, good news does not sell newspapers". He was rightly praising Irish officials for what he termed their "historic role in in 2010 in keeping the country afloat as the government of the day lurched from crisis to crisis". Citing AJ Chopra's words at the Banking Inquiry who described Irish public servants as "the heroes of how Ireland dealt with the crisis", Mr Howlin goes on the laud the current Government's efforts to address the core issue of public service performance and accountability.

To give credit where it is due, DPER has made major strides in driving reform of the public service, often in the face of resistance, with a wide range of programmes, including legislation to protect whistle-blowers and strengthen the FOI system, and his officials have been exemplary in reporting publicly on progress in implementing the reform agenda.

But the one absolutely crucial systemic problem that the reform programme has failed to crack is the lack of accountability, and until such time as it is resolved the culture of collusion with the political system will continue, with all the massive risks that this entails.

Mr Howlin trumpets the "new accountability board as recommended by an independent report" as a real clincher in enhancing accountability at senior levels. In a courageous January 2014 paper, DPER itself defines accountability as involving "external scrutiny with the requirement to explain and justify and with the possibility of consequences arising". Yet the members of this new accountability board are the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the Minister for DPER, their respective secretaries general, another secretary general, the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners - that is eight insiders, along with just four external people.

This is not a credible accountability structure and specifically it doesn't deal with the root of this problem, namely the 1924 Ministers and Secretaries Act and the 1997 Public Service Management Act, which in the words of Pat Rabbitte "enable civil servants to hide behind the skirts of ministers and ministers to avoid responsibility".

If Minister Howlin is serious about exorcising this deep-seated malaise at the nerve-centre of our system of governance he could do worse than consult his Labour Party colleague who is a genuine expert on this topic and who just weeks ago, in the wake of the Fennelly report, repeated in a newspaper article his long-held concerns about this Faustian pact.

Before anyone can hold a senior position in banking today they have to pass tests of both competence and probity and the same criteria should apply to senior public servants. It is often said that the Irish civil servants are not corrupt and this is undoubtedly true; there is no history of officials accepting brown envelopes. But probity refers to far more than simply integrity regarding money.

In this context, the independent panel who recommended the new accountability board was silent on a crucial question posed by DPER in the January 2014 paper that the panel was asked to advise on: "How far should civil servants rely on their moral conscience and their professionalism or follow the instructions of their political masters"?

This is the probity question, and if some of the above-mentioned egregious behaviours were taken into account quite a number of senior public servants would fail the probity test. What they did, and more commonly didn't do -"sins of omission" in moments of huge consequence - was wrong and unprofessional.

Conscientious senior public servants find this the hardest part of their job, to maintain their integrity while serving duly appointed ministers who would have them collude in mad or bad politics.

Politicians have no incentive to change the current system because it enhances their prospects of re-election, but there is a growing realisation among public servants that it is not in their interests - not to mention the interests of citizens they are duty-bound to serve - to go along with the status quo. If for no other reason than the prospect of taking the hit before Dail investigative committees and being unable to defend themselves for something they knew at the time was wrong or unachievable, some officials have begun to signal that they intend to be "more robust"(as HSE CEO Tony O'Brien recently expressed it) in their dealings with ministers in regard to what they will and won't take personal responsibility for. Officials are increasingly unwilling to carry the can.

I believe it is these concerns, more than anything to do with money or workload, that explain why it has proven so difficult to fill the position of secretary general in the Department of Justice and Equality.

Minister Howlin's administrative and political reforms are slowly making inroads into the inherited culture of collusion and impunity, but there is still a long way to go before we have a grown-up system of accountability and a culture of probity, more broadly defined than integrity around money, in the upper echelons of our public service. This is the number one reform challenge facing the next government.

Eddie Molloy, is on the board of the Public Appointments Service.This article reflects his personal views.

Irish Independent

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