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Like other reform plans, this one will end up on the shelf

Civil service reform is one of those topics that occasionally gets governments excited. A report is commissioned and published with great fanfare.

The government of the day promises to implement the reforms and then ... nothing very much happens.

Either the government or its successor gets cold feet or the reforms are quietly stifled by the trade unions and their allies in the upper ranks of the civil service.

Way back in the 1970s we had the Devlin report on civil service reform. Then in the 1980s the late John Boland wheeled out his plans.

Under Bertie Ahern - the father of the boondoggle otherwise known as benchmarking - a reform was introduced under which the job performance of each civil servant would supposedly be assessed annually.


A performance ranking scale of one to five was devised with someone receiving a "one" rating supposed to shape up or ship out while only the really good performers would be awarded a "four" or a "five" rating.

Guess what happened? In 2011 only 0.1pc of all civil servants, about 30 out of a total of 30,000, received a "one" rating while almost two-thirds were awarded either a "four" or a "five" rating.

Based on these ratings it would appear that the vast majority of Irish civil servants are above average - a logically absurd position.

Now Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin has unveiled his very own set of civil service reform proposals.

We wish him luck but we can't help but be sceptical.

The proposals published yesterday are long on guff about "the delivery of improved outcomes", the "reform dividend", "openness and accountability" and digitalisation, but annoyingly short of any specific detail.

One of the big problems with the civil service is its Byzantine grade structure with no fewer than eight general civil service grades and dozens of specialist grades.

However, apart from one or two vague references to "grade rationalisation", the Howlin plan has nothing to say on this extremely sensitive issue.

The Howlin plan is also silent on the huge gap between public and private sector pay with average public sector pay being almost 50pc higher than that in the private sector.

And that's before taking account of the gold-plated pensions paid to retired civil servants while almost half of all private sector workers have made no provision at all for their retirement.

The centrepiece of the Howlin plan is supposed to be a streamlined system for weeding out under-performing civil servants.

Under the current system it can take years to get rid of someone who isn't doing their job properly - assuming such under-performance is detected in the first place.

While being able to get rid of the very worst performers more quickly certainly represents a kind of progress, it doesn't address the key issue.

While there are undoubtedly some very badly-performing civil servants, as well as some very highly-performing ones, the vast bulk of civil servants lie somewhere in the middle - neither doing their jobs particularly well or badly.

That's got to change. The key to getting better value for money from the civil service lies in drastically raising the average job performance.

There are a number of ways of doing this.

The grade structure should be drastically simplified; all grades opened up to outside entrants; services such as human resources and information technology shared across departments; the introduction of IT speeded up and obsolete functions; and departments quickly identified and scrapped.


What are the chances that all or any of these things will happen? In their dealings with the civil service, successive governments have placed their political interests - i.e. winning the next general election - ahead of their duty as employers.

This has meant that, when the civil service trade unions threatened to cut up rough, the government of the day almost inevitably backed down.

What are the chances of things turning out differently this time? I wouldn't be betting my pension on it.

With a general election no more than 18 months away and the Government already running scared on water charges, ministers have absolutely zero appetite for radical but necessary reform.

The Howlin plan is likely to join its predecessors gathering dust on some civil service shelf.