Tuesday 23 July 2019

George Hook: The civil service is a bastion for the under-incentivised and the apathetic

When his son's friend told him his sole ambition was to waste his education and get a permanent position in the civil service, George Hook was horrified

The civil service is a bastion for the under-incentivised and the apathetic, says George Hook. Stock image
The civil service is a bastion for the under-incentivised and the apathetic, says George Hook. Stock image

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of my son. He had just finished college and was about to embark on a professional career. After obtaining a degree in a foreign language and ancient history from Trinity College, the sum total of his ambition, the friend told me, was to gain employment as a civil servant and to see out his working days in a pensionable, State-funded position.

"What about your degree?" I asked, astonished. "How will you put your newly acquired knowledge of foreign languages and ancient history to good use in the Irish civil service?" He shrugged his shoulders and laughed at my incredulity. As far as he was concerned, his degree was but a small step on a pathway to permanent, secure employment. He didn't care a jot if his hard-earned knowledge never saw the light of day again.

I remember that conversation vividly because I struggled to process how a person with an inviting life canvas could limit their life ambition in such an abrupt manner. Where was the drive for success and personal development, I asked myself. Where was his appetite for adventure?

I found the idea of a bright, capable young man limiting his ambitions in such a manner, depressing. My son wasn't the least bit surprised, however, as this friend had long ago set out his stall for a hassle-free life in a civil-service position.

He duly applied for a post in the some department or other, and he remains there to this very day. And good luck to him. I realised some time after that conversation that my issue was not really with what I perceived to be the friend's lack of ambition, but rather the system that could accommodate such a deliberate, State-sponsored safety net. The reality then, as it is now, is that the civil service in Ireland is a cesspool of stagnation and apathy. It openly rewards mediocrity, it tolerates failure and it actively disincentives maximum productivity and initiative.

State employees get paid, regardless of the quality of their work. Once in, it is almost impossible to get fired, and any State employee that fails to perform to the minimum standard in their position is merely shipped off to another department, where they become someone else's problem. This culture, which actively encourages laziness and arrogance, simply would not survive five seconds in the private business world. The manifestation of this mass complacency is playing itself out across every State-run department on a weekly basis, and successive governments have failed to tackle the problem.

The HSE has been a basket case for years, yet it continues to preside over Ireland's appalling health service. The recent findings by Mr Justice Peter Kelly in the 'Grace' case merely underline the hopeless failings of a department that is dangerously unfit for purpose.

An Garda Siochana has also been shown up as a runaway juggernaut of malpractice and cover-ups, where whistleblowers are shunned and ostracised in order to protect the systemic flouting of basic operational standards. The recent revelations of gardai deliberately falsifying breath tests have yet to be explained to any satisfactory degree by the Garda Commissioner. It is incredible that nobody has been held accountable for the source of thousands of falsified breath tests. Where is the paper trail? Confidence in the Gardai has been shattered beyond anything I can ever remember.

I have lived my entire life on the fundamental principle that hard work and tangible success are compensated with fair reward. The idea that somebody should be remunerated on a fixed scale, regardless of how they perform, is an ideal more suited to communism than a free-market state.

The civil service, in its current guise, is a bastion for the under-incentivised and the apathetic. It fosters a work-to-rule environment that cannot get maximum return on the State's investment.

The Government has the power to dramatically shift the working dynamics of its own employees, yet it refuses to do so. And until there is wholesale reform, my friend in the civil service, and the majority of his colleagues, will continue to rest on their laurels, while the rest of us watch our hard-earned taxes contribute to a culture of mediocrity and frustration.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

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

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice